Heat have a long road back to respectability

Heat have a long road back to respectability
By Johnny Ludden, Yahoo Sports
December 9, 2007

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo Sports
LOS ANGELES – The Miami Heat had just blown an 18-point lead to the Golden State Warriors some three hours earlier, their fifth loss in a row, dropping them to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It was a stunningly steep fall from their 2006 championship run, but not quite as dramatic a plunge as the one that faced Pat Riley as he walked out onto his 19th floor balcony at the Four Seasons Hotel here early Saturday morning.

The losses had worn on Riley, and the 62-year-old coach blamed himself for Miami's latest collapse because he hadn't made a single substitution in the fourth quarter, denying Dwyane Wade the energy needed to close out the game. Needing to clear his head in the cool Southern California air, Riley peered over the railing and onto Wilshire Boulevard. There was a time when they held championship parades for him here, but that all seemed so far away.

Chris Riley looked at her husband standing on the balcony and smiled.

"Honey, it's not worth it," she cracked. "Don't do it."

"That's the value of an NBA wife," Riley said Sunday afternoon, retelling the same story he had told his players 2½ hours earlier. For one day, at least, the Heat had reason to joke and laugh. They had beaten the Los Angeles Clippers 100-94, riding Wade's 35 points and Alonzo Mourning's final-minute defensive stand to their first victory in almost two weeks and the 1,200th of Riley's career.

Wade savored the rare win so much so that he told Heat trainer Ron Culp, "It was like having sex for the first time."

"He said it wasn't that good," Wade said. "I agree with him. But it was good."

Wins have come few and far between for the 5-15 Heat this season, and there's no telling when the next will arrive. Miami ends its five-game trip through the Western Conference Monday in Phoenix against a Suns team still smarting from an embarrassing loss to Minnesota. Even in victory Sunday, the Heat showed their many warts, blowing a 16-point advantage in the second half before Wade helped rescue them.

Not that they cared.

"At this particular stage it's about collecting wins and getting us out of this hole we're in," Mourning said. "We need everybody healthy mentally and physically for us to get ourselves out of this position."

Mourning's statement is telling. The Heat have certainly had their injury concerns, most notably the knee and shoulder surgeries Wade underwent in the offseason – procedures that cost him the first seven games and from which he has only recently begun to regain his explosiveness. Miami's problems, however, run far deeper than any surgical scar.

Wade called out Shaquille O'Neal last month, saying the Heat needed more production from their Big Fella. Riley yanked O'Neal from the court less than a minute into one game, and the tension between coach and center continued to simmer until Mourning reportedly had to step between the two to prevent an altercation during a recent practice. Just last week O'Neal complained his teammates weren't getting him enough shot attempts.

Riley said Sunday he had no problem with O'Neal's comments, adding that he, too, thinks Miami's center deserves closer to 15 shots a game than 10. O'Neal took eight on Sunday. He looked pedestrian at times while matched against Chris Kaman, but still remains one of the game's better passing big men and the Clippers still thought enough of his skills to sometimes send two and three defenders at him.

With the Heat clinging to a two-point lead and a little more than a minute left, Riley replaced O'Neal with Mourning, who promptly swatted away a shot from Corey Maggette. O'Neal, Riley later said, was "dragging his leg around" and still laboring from a preseason thigh injury.

For years, O'Neal has tolerated the regular season while waiting to ramp up his game for the playoffs. That attitude has exasperated Riley at times and, more damagingly, spread throughout Miami's locker room. At times, the Heat sound like they would prefer not to be bothered with their current predicament, almost taking for granted that they will eventually begin their march up the standings.

Mourning and forward Udonis Haslem haven't bought into that theory, and, together, they have tried to inject some much-needed urgency into Miami's step.

"You look at us on paper and you wouldn't think that (the Heat's record is 5-15)," Mourning said. "But the cold reality of it is, yes, we are. And it's up to us to utilize our talent to get ourselves out of that situation."

While it's true the Heat do possess talent, more than a little of that talent is aging. And while it's easy to point to O'Neal's decline as the primary reason for Miami's struggles, the team's roster also is flawed. Riley gave himself an "F" for not doing more to upgrade the Heat during the summer and his subsequent acquisition of Ricky Davis and Mark Blount has hardly been a boon to the team.

Starting point guard Jason Williams is again hurting and Smush Parker, Miami's top free-agent signing, is on a mandated leave from the team after an alleged altercation with a parking-lot attendant. Dorell Wright has yet to develop into a consistent contributor and the Heat continue to miss the 3-point threat Jason Kapono, James Posey and Eddie Jones provided. For now, D-League call-up Luke Jackson qualifies as cavalry.

The Heat, of course, still have Wade. If he continues to play as he did Sunday when most of his scoring came in the flow of the offense then Miami will have a chance to win on more than a few nights, provided the rest of the team can offer some support.

"I just think it's going to get better for us," Riley said. "I really believe that. We've had so many close games. We know what our problems are and there will be a time, I believe, when this team will make a run."

Riley, of course, has to believe that. He's already seen how far the Heat have fallen. He might as well hope for their climb back up.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Sunday, Dec 9, 2007 10:54 pm, EST

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