|With title hopes once again, Heat and Riley looking to forget last season|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 30 October 2007 01:18|
Didn't come close to happening.
Injuries, dissension and tumult derailed the Heat's title defense quickly, and the defending champs were bounced from the playoffs without winning a single game in their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls.
``We came back with an indifference like no indifference that I've ever had as a coach on a team,'' Heat coach Pat Riley said. ``A team that did very little in a lot of ways to try to repeat, other than talk about it, and frankly didn't care about a lot of things. But was that born out of being a world champion and trying to take it to the hilt?''
He'll soon find out.
With O'Neal and 2006 finals MVP Dwyane Wade set to lead, newly acquired Ricky Davis theoretically ready to become the team's third scoring option, a motivated Alonzo Mourning in his final year before retirement and a much-healthier Jason Williams in a contract year at point guard, the Heat expect to be title contenders again.
To get there, though, they'll have to show that last season's dismal 44-38 mark - in a year where O'Neal, Wade and Riley all missed significant time and the team never had everyone healthy at the same time - was nothing more than an aberration.
``I still want No. 5,'' O'Neal said. ``More than ever.''
So Riley set out to change the culture in Miami.
He had players on the practice floor at 12:01 a.m. on the first day of training camp, the first of the master motivator's numerous ploys designed to give his team a fresh attitude and rid it of the apparent championship hangover that lingered throughout last season.
``If you don't win, nothing else matters,'' O'Neal said. ``So the object here is to win.''
And if the Heat are to do that, the 7-foot-1 cornerstone will have to lead them early.
This season is starting much the same way last year ended, with Miami fighting off injuries. The team went through an 0-7 preseason partly because at least a dozen players got hurt for at least a portion of camp, and Wade (knee, shoulder surgeries) isn't expected to be on the floor for at least a couple more weeks.
``You have to be mentally tough,'' Wade said. ``I'm one of those guys who's mentally tough and understand that things happen and it's not always easy. When things are looking bad, the way you react, that shows your character and what you can deal with in life. I hit a couple rough spots, but I'm going to keep coming back.''
Until he does, the offense will run primarily through O'Neal.
He'll have some help.
Not wanting to have this team beset by the slow start that helped doom last year's club, Riley pulled off a surprising trade, unloading enigmatic Antoine Walker and two lightly used backups, Michael Doleac and Wayne Simien, to Minnesota in exchange for Davis and center Mark Blount.
Davis is athletic and quick, a proven scorer who will likely have Riley's trust from the outset. And that's why Walker is gone; he clashed with Riley on conditioning issues last season and again in camp this year, never being the ideal fit for the Miami system.
``Pat has his rules and we all know what they are,'' O'Neal said.
It'll take more than following Riley's rules of conditioning to get back to title form. The road in the Eastern Conference seems decidedly tougher than what Miami navigated to win the '06 title.
Defending East champion Cleveland still has LeBron James. Boston is a popular choice in the East after it landed Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and James Posey - from Miami - to play alongside Paul Pierce. Detroit is still a front-runner and Orlando likely improved its team by signing Rashard Lewis and hiring former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy.
Among that group, Miami - even with Wade, O'Neal and Riley - is almost an afterthought. But if the underdog role truly exists, then the Heat will embrace it.
``That's the fun of life. Everyone's thinking they know what they're talking about,'' Wade said. ``None of us knows what's going to happen. No one knows what's going to happen. I mean, it can look dark one day and bright as the light the next. So that's the excitement of playing the game.''
The start may be brutal. Miami plays Detroit, defending champion San Antonio and Phoenix in the season's first nine days, has a five-games-in-seven-nights stint midway through November and plays 13 of its first 21 games away from home.
If they survive that stretch, then get Wade back at his optimum level, Riley believes the Heat could be firmly back in the title chase.
``Once we have all hands on deck,'' Riley said, ``we're going to be a team that is going to have to be contended with.''