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WHO WERE they then? They were more famous, surely more dominant ... and far less successful.
Who are they now? They are older, less vibrant, more vulnerable ... and champions.
Just as the NBA appeared ready to embark on its new era of up-tempo, Phoenix-style basketball, driven by players with foreign accents like Dirk Nowitzki and the phenomenal leadership of LeBron James, who at 21 seemed equal parts Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, let the record show that in the spring of 2006 the Miami Heat suddenly, emphatically and altogether unpredictably showed its allegiance to the timeless values of the long-lost 1990s. Following the winning formula of Jordan's generation, the Heat featured two stars and several wise old role players who used to be stars themselves.
They weren't supposed to win ... not after Pat Riley broke up a nicely balanced roster to assemble an egotistically unbalanced rotation of former All-Stars ... not after Stan Van Gundy stepped down as coach last December to enable boss Riley to reclaim his throne on the bench ... not after Shaquille O'Neal missed 23 regular-season games amid speculation that at 34 he was too old and vulnerable to re-create his championship experiences of the Lakers' dynasty past ... not after ending April with successive losses in Chicago to turn their opening-round series into a best-of-three fright against the undermanned Bulls.
Just 51 days before they raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy on the stage of a Dallas arena hijacked to celebrate their first championship, this Miami Heat team had looked confused, dysfunctional and incapable of becoming NBA Finalists.
But winners ultimately learn their lessons. Take Riley, for example. After arriving in Miami in 1995 promising to deliver a championship, he had embarked on the self-destructive habit of maxing out his teams during the regular season and ultimately leaving them no room for growth. Riley learned from that experience, and he applied it to this team. He could have ridden them hard--indeed, Alonzo Mourning pleaded publicly with him to do just that. Instead he used the regular season as an extended training camp, and this tactic enabled his team to elevate itself in the postseason--a trick his Heat had never been able to pull off until now.
In addition, Riley, 61; Shaq; Mourning, 36; and Gary Payton, 37; all were rejuvenated by the ascension of the 24-year-old Dwyane Wade. His prodigious success (Wade averaged 28.4 points in the playoffs to Shaq's 18.4) showed that O'Neal had matured to counterbalance his diminishing athleticism.
Like reasonable adults entering their second marriages, the key players were less interested in having it their way and more concerned with making the relationships work. Payton--who used to berate his younger teammates in Seattle and was still a presence in the locker room as recently as last season in Boston--became a superstar emeritus. As startling as it used to be to see him dominate his rivals at both ends of the court, it was even more astonishing to see the humility with which he usually deferred to his teammates during the 2005--06 season. And yet when big shots were needed in Games 3 and 5 of the NBA Finals, the old Gary Payton appeared, momentarily, to do his name proud.
No player took more blame for the Heat's unappealing performances in the regular season than Antoine Walker, who was booed in Miami for taking too many threes and struggled to find his place as a bit player in a crowded offense. Yet Walker emerged as the crucial acquisition of the playoff run as his ability to penetrate into the paint, his vision for making plays and his fearlessness in taking the big shot eased the pressures on everybody else. The bad times always seemed to be Walker's fault, unfairly, but he didn't mind absorbing the brunt of criticism because it enabled his teammates to discover their roles without as much scrutiny.
It would be criminal to neglect the rebounding and defense of Udonis Haslem; the transition offense, three-point shooting and defensive versatility of James Posey; or the tempo-pushing drive of Jason Williams, who shared point duties with Wade and proved that he was not too selfish to accept a secondary quarterbacking role. But the key role player in this remarkable come-from-behind triumph was Zo.