Sportsticker Pro Basketball Notebook

@tvbp1985 (999)
November 26, 2006 6:15pm CST
This is not what Pat Riley was looking for when he decided to return. The motivational master of the Miami Heat has spent most of the season working around injuries, explaining embarrassing losses and refuting rumors about his successor as the defending champions have sputtered to a 4-7 mark. There are some parallels to a year ago, most notably the early season absence of superstar center Shaquille O'Neal, whose knee surgery may prevent him from taking the court until the calendar reads 2007. However, the Heat were younger, healthier and hungrier a year ago. Coming off a disheartening home loss in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals, they were looking for someone to guide them to a championship. Now that they have climbed the mountain, you really have to wonder what their motivation may be. "Right now, it just seems like there's no effort in trying to defend the championship," said forward Udonis Haslem, who has gotten everything he has through hard work. "I wish I knew (what the problem was). I have no answer for that." Haslem spoke after Miami's fifth loss in six games, a nationally televised 106-86 beating at San Antonio on Wednesday. The stretch includes an inexcusable 100-76 home loss to New York and another nationally televised 94-72 home beating at the hands of Houston. "Every time we get challenged, we'll find a point in the game where we just let it go," Riley said. Riley has devoted the twilight of his career to building this franchise into an NBA power. He has had to do it twice - starting over at new millennium after cornerstone Alonzo Mourning was stricken with a kidney ailment - and returned to the sidelines less than a year ago when it was clear the team needed the guidance and experience no one else in the organization could provide. After the championship celebration, Riley spent the summer deciding whether or not to return as coach - or at least led everyone to believe that was what he was doing. After announcing his decision to return in August, he revealed he knew shortly after the title run that he wanted to come back. But not to this. "Eleven years, I've been here and built this franchise with people who really care and gone through some rebuilding and a lot of pain to get to this point, and I'll be damned if I'm going to allow people to crap on this franchise," he said. "They can crap on me, but not the franchise." Riley also suggested that he may start cracking the whip again, much the way he did in his first stint as Heat coach with legendary three-hour practices and endless film sessions. "I've been the good daddy for a while, and that's history now," he cautioned. "That's not a warning now, that's just the reality." The Heat are fortunate that they play in the Southeast Division, where they are the only team that really knows how to win. Ahead of them are Orlando and Atlanta, neither of which has won a playoff series this decade. But regaining respectability and re-establishing superiority are two different things. When Riley looks at his team, these are the major problems he sees: - Injuries: For the fifth time in six seasons, O'Neal is going to miss at least 15 games. Despite his overbearing contract and declining numbers, he still draws the double-team that makes things easier for his teammates and "settles" the offense when it gets a bit helter-skelter. O'Neal is not the only injured player. Guard Jason Williams missed seven games recovering from knee surgery, returned to play three contests and felt swelling that forced him to sit out the loss to San Antonio. And versatile swingman James Posey has missed the last two games. - Overworked players: Williams' injury has forced 38-year-old guard Gary Payton - who already was slowing down two years ago - to play more than 30 minutes per game, up two minutes from last season. And O'Neal's injury has put Mourning back into a starting role and left virtually all of the offense to superstar guard Dwyane Wade, who is being swarmed by opponents. When the Heat use Wade in the pick-and-roll, teams usually "show" on him, bringing the second defender up to block his path and delay or disrupt the play. But with O'Neal off the floor, foes are now "blitzing" Wade, forcing him to give up the ball. "Once he gets off the ball and the ball goes to somebody else, the other guys have to make plays," said Riley, which leads us to ... - Antoine Walker: The three-time All-Star forward is enduring his worst season, with career lows of 10.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 38 percent shooting. In his last four games, Walker is shooting 15 percent (5-of-33) - including 1-of-17 from the arc - with 12 points and 13 fouls. He played 10 scoreless minutes at San Antonio. "Antoine's got to play. Come on," Riley said after Tuesday's 101-86 loss to the New Orleans Hornets. "He's got to play at a higher level. We need him now. He's got to be productive." Some of this can be traced to the absence of O'Neal, whose mere presence makes every teammate better. But Mourning believes it is more than that troubling the Heat. "Collectively we are not playing well," he said. "Everyone needs to perform at a higher level for us to win. Shaq is a huge factor, but we should be able to overcome that." A greater concern may be what Riley has detected - a willingness to give in to the moment. The Heat already have lost five games by at least 15 points, one more than they did all of last season. When the Heat have fallen behind, there has been very little of the fight they displayed last season. It happened again Wednesday, when the Spurs opened a 19-point halftime lead and the Heat never got closer than 14 thereafter. "In the second quarter, we just stopped playing," Riley said. "We got frustrated. We went from competing in the first quarter to not communicating in the second. "Then we started to complain. And then we got disgusted at ourselves. And we went from disgusting to discouraging to despicable, and that's just the way it is. That's what I'm dealing with right now." Just over three years ago, Riley stepped aside as coach and gave the reins to Stan Van Gundy because he believed the team needed a new voice. However, he is not going to do that this time around. "I'm part of the problem," he said. "So I'm going to have to find a solution for this." TRIVIA: Morris Peterson's consecutive games played streak ended at 371 when he sat out Wednesday. Who has the longest current streak? Answer below. THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: The Utah Jazz's facility has changed names from the Delta Center to EnergySolutions Arena, with the naming rights going to a Salt Lake City company that disposes of low-level radioactive and hazardous waste. ODEN ODEMETER: 1. Toronto. 2. Memphis. 3. Charlotte. 4. New York. 5. Chicago. TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES: Detroit's Rasheed Wallace is biting his tongue a bit, picking up just one technical foul in his last seven games. He still leads the NBA with five in 12 games but is behind his record-setting pace of 41 set in the 2001-02 season. QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, after his team won three straight games for the first time since the 2004-05 season: "I got to use a joke that I've had saved up for some time. The web site is back up - It's about time. It's been down for a whole year." LINE OF THE WEEK: J.R. Smith, Denver vs. Chicago, November 21: 36 minutes, 13-24 FGs, 5-11 3-pointers, 5-5 FTs, three rebounds, two assists, three steals, 36 points in a 113-109 win. Traded by the Bulls to the Nuggets for next to nothing in the summer, Smith showed Chicago what it gave away. LINE OF THE WEAK: Samuel Dalembert, Philadelphia at Milwaukee, November 22: 15 minutes, 1-2 FGs, 0-0 FTs, two rebounds, one turnover, zero blocks, six fouls, two points in a 98-94 loss. With big men Chris Webber and Steven Hunter out with injuries, Dalembert fouled out with just under six minutes remaining. In his absence, the Bucks grabbed five offensive rebounds and rallied to win. GAME OF THE WEEK: Dallas at San Antonio, November 24. Round two in the most impactful season series. The Mavericks bring a seven-game winning streak into the AT&T Center, where they won Game Seven in last season's thrilling playoff series. The Spurs won their season opener at Dallas but their only two losses have come at home. GAME OF THE WEAK: Boston at Milwaukee, November 25. All that leftover turkey isn't the only thing making you feel a bit sleepy. ... TWO MINUTES: Second-year guard Monta Ellis is the only player on the Warriors who has scored in double figures in every game this season. Having entered the NBA straight out of high school, the 6-3 Ellis has impressed Don Nelson so much that the coach moved shooting guard Jason Richardson to small forward to start the youngster. Ellis is averaging 18.1 points per game after erupting for 31 in consecutive contests earlier this week as he picked up the slack for Baron Davis, who is nursing a sore rib cage muscle. "He went down the other night and didn't play today, so I had to step into that role, playing and being that leader and doing what he normally does," Ellis said. ... Celtics All-Star swingman Paul Pierce is impressed with Bobcats forward Adam Morrison, who leads all rookies in scoring at 14.7 points per game. Morrison has eclipsed 20 points in three of his last five games, including a 26-point showing Wednesday in a win over Boston. "He's a gifted scorer with the way he shoots the ball," Pierce said. "He's real aggressive in driving the ball. He has a pro game already as a rookie. He's confident out there. A lot of rookies are scared to take shots. He feels like this is his team the way he takes control." ... Wanna know why the Hornets already have two four-game winning streaks? When they fell behind Phoenix, 34-28, after one period
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