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Mark Heisler SUNDAY REPORT

It pained Riley just to watch Heat

January 07, 2007|Mark Heisler

Just when the Heat thought nothing else could go wrong.

We're not just talking about a disappointment anymore. This is a pratfall for the ages with Miami Coach Pat Riley, who said his players could defend their title or disgrace it, coming up with a third option, disappearing.

Of course, Riley works there, so he had to take them seriously. Because no one expected the Heat to repeat, it's not fair to hold the team to that standard.

On the other hand, everyone did think Miami would make the playoffs.

It's one thing to lose Shaquille O'Neal -- an annual thing, actually -- or Dwyane Wade, who's always attacking the basket and has the medical chart to prove it.

It's another for Riley, coach, president, 20% owner and bedrock of the franchise, to leave to get his knee and hip fixed because he's "just tired of the pain and the medication," with no return date -- which suggests there may not be one.

It's always darkest before the dawn, but with Riley going on leave and Dolphins coach Nick Saban just leaving, this was more like the night the lights went out in South Florida.

Not that the two situations are the same. For the Heat, the good news is Riley will return. Unfortunately, my bet is it will be only for this season, after which he'll be gone for good, and even he can't turn this sow's ear into a silk purse.

People can say what they want about Riley, a control freak's control freak whose departure from New York in 1995 makes Saban's move from the Dolphins to Alabama look like a stroll down a rose-strewn lane.

Riley's image was further charred last season when he returned to coach the Heat over the prone body of his former assistant, Stan Van Gundy. No one else's fingerprints were ever found, but knowing the principals, my bet is that O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning wanted Riley back and the team's 11-10 start was no coincidence.

In any case, Riley came through for them and vice versa. Whatever other issues anyone has, there's no mistaking the depth of his commitment.

Had this been one of his gung-ho Lakers teams with Magic Johnson, his Knicks teams with Patrick Ewing or his Heat teams with Mourning, Riley would have kept working if they had to shoot him full of painkillers, wrap him in bandages and tilt him against the scorer's table like a mummy.

This team isn't like those. Riley was different, knew his players were different, was grateful for their last shining moment and turned himself into a pretzel trying to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, the pretzel just crumbled into 1,000 pieces.

Three weeks ago the Heat had to come from eight points behind in the last 4:43 to beat the New Orleans Hornets, who were without both starting forwards and sixth man Bobby Jackson. Riley was so exasperated, he said he thought of getting thrown out ("They won't play defense, I won't coach").

I don't think he's doing this only out of exasperation, but it's part of it.

Another is pain. Another is hopelessness, at least in the near term, on a West Coast trip with Wade still out, O'Neal further away and an expansion team on the court.

Riley doesn't get a pass for this. He broke up the 59-23 Heat team that led Detroit, 3-2, in the 2004 Eastern finals before Wade was hurt, shipping out shooters Eddie Jones and Damon Jones.

In their place, Riley acquired Antoine Walker, who had few other admirers, and Jason Williams, who wasn't playing in fourth quarters in Memphis and doesn't in Miami, even though the alternative is 38-year-old Gary Payton.

There's one more element in Riley's move: design, however desperate.

On his way out, Riley deactivated Walker and James Posey for being 1 percentage point over body-fat targets -- while acknowledging he has let O'Neal off the hook for the same thing -- hurling the gauntlet at or on his players' toes.

"They simply don't want to work," Riley told a Miami radio station. "They don't want to work right now. To me, it's disgraceful.

"That's what I've been dealing with, and that's what I'm trying to eradicate."

This will presumably be followed by a road trip from hell. Let's just say if O'Neal wasn't crazy about Van Gundy, he's not likely to fall for interim Coach Ron Rothstein, who makes Van Gundy look like a stand-up comic.

What happens now is anyone's guess. Their first game wasn't promising, with the Clippers leading by 29 points in the fourth quarter.

Backup center Michael Doleac said it "felt terrible out there. I got negative. I got down. And that's not right. You've got to fight that and stay positive as best you can and do whatever you can to win. Ridiculous.

"We're playing basketball. It's supposed to be fun, but the air around us is bad right now."

The Heat began the weekend 2 1/2 games behind No. 8 Milwaukee with nine of its next 12 on the road. The schedule turns favorable after that, but Miami may be even further back by then.

I'll be rooting for them. I once wrote a book on Riley, and I'd love to tack on a dramatic chapter and put out another edition. As they say in Miami these days, what's life without a dream?

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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