MIAMI (AP) -On the eve of his 16th NBA season, even Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal sees extra significance in opening night.
Standings-wise, it's just the first of 82 games, the start of the grueling six-month march toward the postseason. But to O'Neal, opening night merely represents the first chance to get into first place - which may explain why he's only been part of two season-starting losses in his long career.
He'll look to improve that record Thursday, when the Heat host the Detroit Pistons.
``It's very important,'' O'Neal said. ``You always wake up the next day and see 1-0, not 0-1. You always want to be 1-0 and at the top of your standings, not start off at the bottom. It's been a long summer, everybody's been waiting anxiously for us to be back, so we'll try to give them a good show. And we will.''
Whatever the show is, it'll almost certainly be better than last year's opener.
Pregame-wise, it was special. A championship banner was hoisted to the rafters, players and coaches shook hands with commissioner David Stern and were given sparkling rings approximately the size of a child's fist, and video highlights from Miami's run to the 2006 NBA title played on the jumbo screens over the court.
Alas, the party ended with a thud.
The Chicago Bulls - a team the Heat ousted on the way to that 2006 title - beat Miami 108-66.
``I guess that team wanted it more,'' said new Heat forward Ricky Davis, acquired last week from the Minnesota Timberwolves in a five-player swap. ``But this year, we'll come in and be focused right away. It's a great chance to start building for the year.''
Davis said he didn't watch that Heat-Bulls game last season.
Miami coach Pat Riley, well, he can't forget it, no matter how hard he tries.
Riley said the memories were popping up again Tuesday night, as he watched San Antonio get its rings before beating the Portland Trail Blazers 106-97 in the first game on this year's NBA schedule.
``It was interesting to see the schedule,'' Riley said, somewhat good-naturedly. ``They sent us our most bitter rival for ring ceremony night, and San Antonio got basically the worst team in the league from last year.''
Miami and Detroit have played some epic games in recent seasons; the Pistons won Game 7 in South Florida to capture the 2005 Eastern Conference title, then surrendered that crown on Miami's home floor a year later.
But the past is gone, and Riley said it's time to look ahead.
``I'm not thinking about last year,'' Riley said. ``Our guys are ready, as ready as we can be, and we know Detroit is solid.''
The start of last season - not just the Chicago game on ring night - was brutal for Miami.
Over the first four months, the Heat spent exactly two days above .500. They got off to a 4-8 start, were outscored by an average of nearly 15 points in their first six home games, and lost O'Neal to a knee injury before the year was two weeks old. He wound up missing half the season.
Injuries like that, plus the freely acknowledged sense of ``we can turn it on whenever we want,'' wound up dooming Miami, which ended up as a No. 5 seed in the playoffs and got swept by the Bulls.
To a man, the Heat say that laissez-faire attitude is gone now.
``The regular season, we look at it as a platform going into the postseason,'' center Alonzo Mourning said. ``We obviously want to win as many regular-season games as possible, so we can position ourselves for a higher seed. I think if we go in as a higher seed in last year's playoffs, it's a totally different scenario.''
On some levels, though, it isn't.
Dwyane Wade will miss this game as he continues to recover from offseason knee and shoulder surgeries. He might not be back for a few more weeks, meaning already, injuries - just like last year - are a problem.
But O'Neal says he's ready, willing and able to carry the load until Wade returns.
``I don't think about last year,'' O'Neal said. ``Nobody cares about the past. You always look forward toward the future. Last year was a difficult year, a different year, but now we have a new year to look forward to.''
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