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Crazy like a fox (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday June 21, 2006 2:35AM; Updated: Wednesday June 21, 2006 5:46AM
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Pat Riley celebrates with his wife, Chris, and Finals MVP Dwyane Wade.
Pat Riley celebrates with his wife, Chris, and Finals MVP Dwyane Wade.

Riley, the man who seemed like half the coach Avery Johnson was during the first two games in Dallas, made this thing work. He may not have taught Wade his bank shot or willed Udonis Haslem's jumpers into the goal, but he somehow made this goofball group of egos and ascending/declining contributors into champions. Mark Cuban's petulant blog post that he cobbled together after Dallas beat Phoenix in the Western Conference finals ("nobody thought we could do this, nobody thought we could do that ...") now seems like a more appropriate tome for the man who just won his seventh (player, assistant, head coach) ring.

Precious few, outside of Miami homers, thought this guy had built a champion. Nobody thought that asking Walker to make sound entry passes or demanding a step-slow Payton try to stay in front of speedsters off the opponent's bench would work. With the way the game is shaped in 2006, it just didn't seem like the right thing to do. It seemed like an extension of Riley's middle years with the Heat, when he would throw contracts at aging veterans like Rod Strickland, Kendall Gill, Anthony Mason, Jim Jackson, LaPhonso Ellis, Sam Mack ... need I go on? It seemed like the game had passed Riley by.

It turns out that we all have a lot to learn from this guy.

So congrats to the champs, who earned this the toughest way possible. The Heat took down the regular season's best team, and (until a week ago) the best squad these playoffs had to offer, while winning the whole thing on the road. Miami was a deserved, inspiring champion that was a joy to watch when it turned it on. And, above all, kudos to the man who flipped the switch.

Fresh start

It ends here, you know. Not just the 2005-06 season, but something we'll probably call the "post-Jordan years" in almanacs and encyclopedias and Wikipedias to come. The NBA's new era is upon us.

We saw pangs of this rebirth in 2004, when a five-man tornado from Detroit took down the Lakers with a dominant batch of team ball. We saw signs in 2005 when the Phoenix Suns proved that an offensive-minded team in the modern era could win 62 games and run toward the league's best record. We took notice during this season's playoffs, when increased scoring and sped-up play led to the finest postseason run this league has ever seen.

From here, the game evolves. Team play, running, skills and savvy will reign supreme over star-driven, isolation-based, minimalist ball. Outfits in Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey, Chicago, Toronto, Washington and Los Angeles -- and even Detroit and San Antonio -- will start to dig the new breed and leave the mess that MJ left us in the dust. We saw it all postseason long. This game is great again.

(The game's got a nostalgic side, you know. It sent the old ones -- Shaq, Riley, Mourning, Payton, Walker, Shandon bloody Anderson -- out with a bang. It gave them one last run before closing the curtain on their style of ball.)

Wade, this year's Finals MVP, actually represents the best that this new era has to offer. No slight to LeBron James, but Wade's a little older, and he knows how to dominate when that jumper falls flat. Wade just happens to be on a team that featured remnants and relics from the NBA's past. He's what this whole thing turns on.

The game is in his hands right now and we're all better for it.