Heat Eager to Begin Title Defense

Tuesday, October 31st 2006, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ The reminders of last season's greatness are everywhere for the Miami Heat.

There's dozens of new photos lining the redesigned hallway around their locker room, snapshots of players and staff showering each other with champagne after winning the NBA title last June, then of the parade that followed three days later.

More images of the championship trophy are scattered all over the locker room, too _ on the carpet, on the door, inside every player's locker.

All the cosmetic changes have a twofold purpose, Heat coach Pat Riley says. Yes, there's something to be said about cherishing those memories. But perhaps more importantly, he thinks this season's team is best served by constantly seeing the prize that they'll spend this season chasing as well.

``We earned a world championship and we're proud as hell of it,'' Riley said. ``We're going to defend it. We're not going to look back with nostalgia about it. That's been won. It's been experienced. It's been enjoyed. And now we're back to work. That's what happens with every championship team. The summer ends.''

Riley has been down this road many times before; when the Heat defeated Dallas in last season's NBA finals, it was his seventh championship as a coach, assistant coach and player. And the title was Shaquille O'Neal's fourth, so he, too, understands the rigors of what goes into a championship defense.

But for everyone else on the Heat roster, like first-time champion Dwyane Wade and a dozen other guys who'll be wearing rings for the first time, this season will be a new experience.

``We have the same pieces and we like the feeling that we accomplished last year,'' O'Neal said. ``We know what it takes to get it done and we still have the '15 Strong.'''

That was the catchphrase _ or rallying cry _ that Riley came up with entering last season's playoffs.

It's not exactly '15 Strong' for Miami these days, not with Derek Anderson leaving to pursue more playing time elsewhere and Shandon Anderson's status for this season still not settled.

But they are the only two players from last season's title-winning club who won't be part of the team when the championship banner is hoisted Tuesday night.

Riley considered making some offseason changes. In the end, though, he just didn't see a glaring need.

``I think this is a hell of a team,'' Riley said. ``I think they're smart, they're versatile, they have talent and they can get better. So I didn't want to disrupt that at all. I have one of these superstitions about taking a team that did something like they did last year, breaking it up, and then all that stuff I was talking about and believe in didn't count.''

The Heat are bringing every regular from last season's rotation back this year, an approach that some may find mildly surprising _ especially when considering that many Miami veterans like Gary Payton (38) and Alonzo Mourning (who turns 37 in February) are among the oldest players in the league.

Yet they'll both play important roles for this team; Payton will probably start at point guard for the season's first couple weeks while Jason Williams continues recovering from offseason knee surgery, and Mourning is still O'Neal's primary backup _ plus remains one of the league's best defenders.

Mourning considered retiring after Miami won the title, then decided it'd be more fun to try winning again.

``I'm still on Cloud Nine and I'll be that way the whole season,'' Mourning said. ``It's going to take somebody to try to knock us off that pedestal we're on right now. We've worked extremely hard to get to that point and after putting all we put into it, preparing for that moment, it's a real special feeling.''

And if anyone knocks Miami from this pedestal Mourning speaks of, they'll probably have to find a way to slow Wade.

Entering his fourth year, Wade is coming off a season where he averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds. He was even better in the playoffs, then averaged 34.7 points in the finals against Dallas _ dominating the last four games of the series, when the Heat rallied from an 0-2 deficit.

He knows everyone will be gunning for him and the Heat now.

``A lot of teams are going be measuring themselves up to us, whether we're at our best at the beginning of the year or not,'' Wade said. ``On one hand, it's an honor. On the other, it's going to be tough.''

The Heat went 52-30 last season, one where they endured injury (O'Neal missed the first quarter of the season with an ankle sprain) and upheaval (Stan Van Gundy resigned in December, clearing a path for Riley to return).

Still, they found a way to play their best basketball at season's end.

And while securing another division title and high playoff seed is important, O'Neal also continues to insist that the regular season means little to him in the grand scheme of things.

``Top four seed, 55, 60 wins, win half our games on the road and be dominant at home, and we'll be fine,'' O'Neal said. ``That's all. We don't need to be 19-0 or 22-2 at the start like some teams will be. That'll happen and it won't mean anything. We'll be fine if we stick to our formula, our championship formula.''

When the Heat get healthy, they'll have Williams and Wade in the backcourt, Antoine Walker and Udonis Haslem at forward and O'Neal at center. Off the bench, the primary rotation will likely include Mourning, Payton and James Posey _ and together, those were the eight guys playing the majority of postseason minutes.

Will it be good enough?

O'Neal truly thinks so.

``I really can't say what we have to do to get it done,'' O'Neal said. ``However, we know what we have to do to get it done.''