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Warmed Over

The Heat title defense has gone great, unless you count Shaq's injury, the geriatric roster and the losing record

December 25, 2006|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — All they want for Christmas is last Christmas.

A lot has changed since the last time Shaquille O'Neal and the Heat played host to Kobe Bryant's Lakers in what has become as much a rite of Christmas as the story of the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.

For one thing, the Heat won a championship, the team's first and O'Neal's fourth.

For another, they're now in the midst of the Title Defense From Hell.

In the first two Yuletide re-enactments of the Shaq-Kobe feud (which is technically over, not that that dissuaded ABC), Bryant and his fledgling Lakers arrived as if served up on a platter for O'Neal's Eastern Conference powerhouse, which won both.

In their first two seasons apart, O'Neal's Heat was 111-53, reached the East finals in 2005 and won a title last spring. Bryant's Lakers were 79-85, missed the playoffs in 2005 and went out in the first round last spring.

For two years people said Lakers owner Jerry Buss committed the all-time gaffe, but the other half of the equation is revealing itself. The Lakers are one of this season's surprises. Without O'Neal, so is the once-formidable Heat.

O'Neal is going on 35 and out till mid-January, and the Heat seems to get older every day. Happily for them, they're in the East, where they were No. 8 when they were 9-13.

Unhappily, they're used to better, none of them more than Heat Coach Pat Riley, who won four titles and went to the Finals two more times in his first seven seasons with the Lakers, back when he divided life into "winning" and "misery."

Of course, that was with the Showtime Lakers, who would have needed straitjackets if they had started 9-13.

"My perspective is a lot different than when I was younger," Riley said last week. "I was a little bit more fearful of the consequences and how I would be perceived and how the team would be perceived.

"We are who we are right now. ... I just want to keep it even until everyone's healthy, and I know that's not going to be for another month and a half."

That night the Heat had to come from 11 points behind to beat the New Orleans Hornets, who were without Peja Stojakovic, David West and Bobby Jackson.

"I almost got to the point where I figured, 'You know what, I'm just going to get thrown out of the game,' " Riley said afterward. "They don't want to play defense, I don't want to coach."

Only 20 or 30 more shopping days until O'Neal's back, they hope.

Last hurrah plus one

Of course, Riley could have gone out on top.

It wasn't really feasible amid expectations, ticket-price increases and the fact he was not only the coach but president and 20% co-owner. But it did occur to him.

"I think you have an image of, this is it, man, this is great, let's move on," Riley said. "I don't know, I felt a real responsibility to these players and they're calling me all summer, begging me to come back. ...

"I don't know how long I'm going to continue to coach, but I definitely felt it really was a responsibility to this team and this franchise to coach at least this year with these guys."

This is not the driven Riley who became the NBA version of a movie star with the Lakers and the prince of the city in New York before his spectacular fall here when Alonzo Mourning's illness cratered the franchise.

Riley is softer-spoken, often self-deprecating and, at least as far as appearances go, leaning toward leaving the sideline forever after this season.

He thought he was done three seasons ago when he turned the team over to Stan Van Gundy, savaging himself on the way out ("What is Stan replacing? A name, that's all.").

The next spring, Riley passed up a chance to return to the Lakers, an old dream but one that arrived too late.

Old habits die hard with Riley, who kept his watch on Pacific time all five years in New York. In the spring of 2004, it looked as if he might actually get that homecoming when Buss, who had just told Phil Jackson he wouldn't be back, invited him to fly to Los Angeles for a chat.

Riley did, but as much as a courtesy to his old benefactor. Riley was interested only if it was an optimal situation with O'Neal and Bryant; he even volunteered to call both players and try to reconcile them.

As Riley described it, Buss let the matter drop and suggested they order dinner.

"I was with the Lakers 20 years, as a coach, as a player, as a broadcaster, as a traveling secretary, as an assistant," Riley said.

"Yeah, the Lakers are always in my heart, but it's been a long time. It's been 16 years. And so even though there's those delusions -- and I think it is a delusionary mind-set that you might go back there -- we've moved on.

"Everybody's moved on. They've got a great coach. They've got a different organization. Even though at one time I did talk to them about it, I never felt it was going to happen."

Instead, Riley wound up trading for O'Neal and, six weeks into his second season, returning as the Heat's coach, insisting to a world of skeptics it was the last thing he wanted.

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