Riley's Miami makeover turned out just fine after all
Posted: Wednesday June 21, 2006 2:35AM; Updated: Wednesday June 21, 2006 5:46AM
Pat Riley adds this title with the Heat to the four he won as a coach with the Lakers.
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It starts last August, when a five-team, 13-player trade gives us our first chance in years to doubt Pat Riley. In his 10th year with the Heat, Riley had presided over a rebuilding process that nearly sent his team to its first NBA Finals appearance two months earlier, but he decides to dump Eddie Jones -- as good a role player as can be found -- for a batch of players that included Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and James Posey.
Three significant talents, no doubt, but three semi-stars who were used to having the ball. Last time we checked, it seemed as if the Heat needed fewer ball hogs; Shaquille O'Neal couldn't even get a good crunch-time look in the Heat's season-ending loss to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, and wouldn't Walker, Williams and Posey just confuse things?
Then, a month later, Riley declines to re-sign free agent Damon Jones. The Heat need shooting, what with Shaq owning the low post and Dwyane Wade slashing about, and how hard would it have been to at least match the $4 million a year Jones would be making with the Cavaliers?
The Heat are everyone's No. 2 in the East heading into the season, but O'Neal goes down with an ankle injury in the second game. Miami goes 9-9 after that. Shaq returns for an exciting comeback win over the Wizards on Dec. 11, and inexplicably, coach Stan Van Gundy decides to step aside the next day. Interesting. Riley, ever the agreeable sort, takes over -- once again coaching the roster he put together.
It's a fitful year. The Heat sleepwalk through some games, look like world-beaters in others and seem to be biding their time until the playoffs. The postseason finally shows up and they struggle through a six-game win over the scrappy Chicago Bulls in the first round. Shaq looks old. Wade, Gary Payton and Walker all have on- and off-court words with each other. Wade is able to put away a couple of games and the role players nail some big shots, but it's hardly an appropriate beginning to a championship run.
New Jersey shows up in Miami for the next round, leads by 20 for most of Game 1 and steals the home court advantage. I'm wondering why I didn't pick the Nets, full of slashers and runners and passers and finishers, to win in four.
It's all on Riley at this point. He put together a group of players around Wade that couldn't contend with the New NBA. His moves would only be justified if the Heat make the Finals, and he's not even going to get out of the second round. And Shaq's due to make $20 million in 2010. Walker's around for a few more years. And who's going to come to Florida to play with these guys once Payton and Alonzo Mourning retire?
Then something different happens. It isn't unexpected, but it also isn't something we'd seen in 12 months. The Heat start to play consistent, thoughtful basketball. They start to win, too. Four straight to dump the Nets. Four of six to trash the defending Eastern Conference champs, making the Pistons look like the geezers for once. Miami falls back on old habits for the first 11˝ quarters against Dallas in the Finals, and then it starts to listen to its coach. The Heat work on defense. The rotations are solid. They start to rebound. They give Wade the ball and get the hell out of his way.
And the Heat win. And win. And win. And win the championship. The Miami Heat, an expansion team that still struggles to draw during the regular season and still loves to run gimmicks like free clacker toys left under the American Airlines Arena seats alongside an insistence that every patron wear white, win the 2006 NBA championship.