Basking in the past, Heat struggle in the present
November 29, 2006 7:02pm CST
MIAMI (AP) -- The Miami Heat's arena has become a shrine to last season, with their NBA championship celebrated on rafter banners, in hallway photos, in a larger-than-Shaq portrait by the entrance and even on the locker-room carpet. Five months ago seems like the good ol' days. The Heat have quickly gone from basking in the past to struggling with the present, and they take a 6-8 record into Thursday's game against Detroit. Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Williams and James Posey have been hurt. Antoine Walker has been benched, while Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton have often looked their age, which means old. Even with Dwyane Wade flashing new moves every night, the Heat have combined a sputtering offense with a leaky defense. Other than that, it's hard to explain their losing record. "We've got to get back to fighting and clawing," Mourning said. As team president, Pat Riley approved the abundance of arena regalia. As coach, he's reluctant to blame it for the slow start. But if the reigning champions were fat and happy when the season started, they're fat and unhappy now. And in the wake of a 20-point loss last week -- Miami's fourth by that margin or more -- Riley threatened to cut players despite their guaranteed contracts. "You show a team like this a lot of respect, and you give them a lot of rope, and sometimes it backfires," Riley said. "You think that because they're veterans, they understand certain privileges. Then you're getting beat by 20 and 30 and 40, and you say, `Hey, maybe this isn't the way to go with it.' "It has its benefits -- don't wear them out in practice, and save it for the games. But I wasn't wearing them out in practice, and we weren't saving anything for the games." As part of his crackdown, Riley shuffled his rotation last week. A shooting slump sent Walker to the bench, and with Williams coming back from offseason knee surgery, Wade moved to point guard. The changes helped. Wade has totaled at least 30 points and 10 assists in three consecutive games -- becoming the first player to do so since 1989 -- and the Heat have won two in a row. "We have been playing better as a team," Wade said. "We don't have the luxury of having Shaq right now. We've got to get back to doing what the Miami Heat do -- take charges, take hits, dive on the floor to get loose balls and play together." The Heat can gauge any recent progress when they face Detroit. It's the first meeting this season between last spring's Eastern Conference finalists. Miami had O'Neal in top form then. Now he's recovering from knee surgery that's expected to sideline him until at least Dec. 23. AP - Nov 29, 3:19 pm EST More Photos "Shaq is the guy that makes everybody else better," the Pistons' Chauncey Billups said. "He creates double- and triple-teams, and all those guys can start hitting their threes and doing all that other stuff. Now they have to kind of fend for themselves and hope that D-Wade makes every shot." A slow start by the Heat in their bid to repeat is hardly a shock. With a veteran roster a year ago, they underachieved during the regular season, following O'Neal lead and preserving energy for their playoff run. The Heat started 10-10 but went 16-7 when it counted most -- in the postseason. The rotation returned intact, and the Heat are again hearing they're too old. O'Neal (34) has played only four games, while Payton (38) and Mourning (36) have often struggled. "We don't allow older guys to have a bad game," Riley said. "We call them old. But when a young guy has a bad game, it's a bad game." Forced to concede that O'Neal's approach worked last season, Riley may be less inclined to stew about this season's sluggish start. It helps to play in NBA's weaker conference, where only four teams have a better record than Miami. With little reason to worry about a good seeding, Riley has even talked about the need to ensure his team is fresh come the postseason. "The best way to do that is to take the real old guys and put them on the deactivation list and save them for the playoffs," Riley said. "That's when you need their smarts and savvy and talent. "We need everybody now. But if we do get a full complement of players when Shaq gets back, we might have to think about that." As the defending NBA champions well know, the season that matters most is still five months away.