He may have fewer rings--three compared with his coach's four--but Shaquille O'Neal was the Big Difference in Miami's fast start under Pat Riley last week. In helping his club win three during a difficult stretch of four road games in five nights, Shaq, back from a high ankle sprain that kept him out of 18 games, opened up the floor for the Heat's perimeter scorers. Meanwhile, his coach's contributions were, well, weighty. On Dec. 15, three days after replacing Stan Van Gundy behind the bench, Riley scolded Shaq about his excess poundage, which is something that only a Hall of Fame--caliber coach can get away with. O'Neal, who reported to training camp at about 340 pounds, had dropped to the 330 range by last week. But Riley is pushing him to play at 320. "I want to make sure he's healthy and in shape," says Riley. "He was off four weeks; now he's got to work to get [his conditioning] back."
O'Neal didn't balk. "Whatever it takes to win in his view," said the Diesel, "I'm going to have to have the same view. He's the president, I'm the general."
Riley's adjustments weren't strictly motivational. He made effective tactical changes. While Van Gundy tended to focus on defensive matchups, Riley appeared more intent on creating mismatches offensively. That has meant an increased role for long-distance shooter Antoine Walker, whom Riley, to the puzzlement of many, traded for this summer. Don't be surprised if before long, Walker, heretofore a sixth man, is inserted into the starting lineup to prevent defenses from sagging on O'Neal. Riley is also allowing his veterans more offensive freedom than Van Gundy did. "He lets us play, and only when we don't have anything there do we call [a set] play," says guard Dwyane Wade. "With this team we have, with Antoine and Gary [Payton] and myself, I think that's more to our liking."
Here's something else that will be to their liking: Asked what he no longer would do as coach, Riley said, "Hurt them. Hurt players. I don't do that anymore, physically and mentally, by working them too hard. A lot of those things I used to do with players I won't even think about doing now."
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