|Heat season offers an anatomy of a stunning collapse|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 14 March 2008 07:11|
It was Dec. 19, the night the Miami Heat center crumbled in a heap to the floor in Atlanta, his kneecap having fallen somewhere around his ankle after a tendon exploded. He slammed his hand on the court in anger and frustration, then shouted: ``It's over, it's over, it's over.''
He was referring to his season, possibly his career.
He should have been talking about Miami's chances for 2007-08 - a season that will go down as an epic Heat disaster, the culmination of a stunning fall from grace that no other team two years removed from an NBA championship, not even the Chicago Bulls in the era that immediately followed Michael Jordan's departure after six titles in eight years, has ever experienced.
Two years ago, Miami won 16 games in the playoffs and swilled a champion's brand of champagne.
This season, saddled with the worst record in basketball, the Heat might not win 16 games, total.
``With this season and everything that's gone on, you've got to be like, 'Man, come on,''' Heat center Mark Blount said. ``But you've got to still play.''
Which they will, until April 16, when this miserable season will mercifully end and the Heat will begin anew, a process that has already started in many respects. Shaquille O'Neal was traded away, and now, Dwyane Wade - the MVP of that championship run in 2006 - has seen his season end because of continued problems with his long-troublesome left knee.
The 125-game sellout streak has ended, the days of ``15 Strong'' are done and the Heat are, officially, playing out the string.
``Everything happens to me for a reason,'' Wade said. ``I've had my fun times, I got my championship early and I did a lot of great things. But now it's time for me to go through this. I didn't go through it early in my career like a lot of great players. I was able to win a championship my third year and had a possibility to win it my second year. Now in my fourth and fifth year, I hit the trials and tribulations of what everyone goes through. And other people are shining. I had my time to shine.''
The constant question in Heat circles is this: How did this happen?
Nobody knows for certain, including those in the Miami locker room.
``The only thing we can do now is play as hard as possible,'' Heat guard Chris Quinn said. ``It's obviously not the situation we want to be in, but all we can do is make the best of it.''
There was a sense at the start of the season - even with few, if any, pundits expecting the Heat to make another championship run - that a team with O'Neal, Wade, Mourning and coach Pat Riley would certainly find its way into the playoff mix.
That theory didn't last long, and now - as some people around the league think Miami is tanking the remainder of the season to ensure that it gets the best chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick for this year's draft - the image of the franchise is already changing.
O'Neal? Amid a messy divorce from his wife, he seemed unhappy in Miami, eventually wanted a buyout from the Heat and got traded to the Suns for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks - who, somewhat ironically, joined a half-dozen other new teammates on Miami's injured list shortly after arriving in South Florida.
``I don't know what we did to deserve this,'' said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, whose season has also been derailed by injuries.
Wade? His season ended a month early and he played with pain much of the year, but he hopes to be ready for the Olympics this summer.
Mourning? There's some who expect he'll want to play next year, but Mourning has steadfastly said this season was his last.
Riley? He'll almost certainly go into the Hall of Fame later this year, but no one knows for sure if he'll coach again next season. And his future is the subject of constant speculation, which Riley doesn't enjoy at all.
``I don't want to get into these conversations,'' Riley said, when asked if he needs to decide quickly about his future. ``We're going to finish this year, we're going to move on into what we really have to do, which is evaluate our players presently, to evaluate the college draft, to evaluate all the free agents and get into free agency and that's it. I don't want to have to keep answering that question all the time.''
Thing is, he really hasn't answered it once.
Riley said last summer that his intention was to coach three more seasons, which coincided with what remained on O'Neal's contract. With O'Neal gone, many are wondering if the master plan by Riley - who is also the Heat president - has changed. He's been asked the question dozens of times, always brushing it away without revealing if his plans are different than a year ago.
He's always had critics of his coaching style, but these days, Riley's toughest critic is himself, and that may be a sign of what his future plan might be, too.
``I have not done a very good job coaching this team,'' he said.
A team that won a championship just two seasons ago was essentially out of the playoff picture by Christmas. Networks dropped a slew of Heat games from the broadcast schedules, which is standard when a team that was expected to be very good turns out to be very bad. And plenty of roster changes are certain to happen this summer.
``You can't think about that,'' said point guard Jason Williams, who will be a free agent and may not return. ``I want to be here. But all you can do is play.''
The Heat have the NBA's worst record, and that isn't the only appalling number. Anyone who follows basketball knows that the sum of the parts in the Eastern Conference is weaker than the sum of the Western Conference. Every team in the East has won at least 14 games this year against teams from its own conference.
Every team, that is, except the Heat - who had won four against East foes entering Friday night's game with the Orlando Magic.
``It's no fun,'' said Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson, whose team came into Miami earlier this month and eked out a mere 35-point victory. ``I've been there before. I feel bad for Pat.''
Riley has seven NBA championship rings, five as a head coach, and is the third-winningest coach in NBA history behind Lenny Wilkens and Nelson. Among active coaches, only the Los Angeles Lakers' Phil Jackson - a nine-time champion coach - has won more rings than Riley.
But now, he's gone back to school. Riley, at the request of Heat owner Micky Arison, will spend considerable time scouting college talent in the coming weeks (at conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament), with hopes of ensuring that Miami gets the best-fitting, most-talented players it can in the draft.
Said New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas: ``The things that Pat has done for the game as a player, and also a coach, and the lives that he's impacted in the game ... he and Phil Jackson, right now in our league, those two are basketball royalty.''
It hardly seems that way right now, after a season like this.
``It's been a nightmare,'' Riley said.
Soon, though, he can be like Mourning - and say it's over.