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Miami Suddenly Fighting to Stay Alive
Team Squabbles, O'Neal's Troubles Hindering the Heat

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

MIAMI, May 1 -- As arena workers methodically covered every seat in American Airlines Arena with white fabric Monday in preparation for the Miami Heat's meeting Tuesday with the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, it was difficult to divine the seat covers' intended meaning. "White Hot" is the slogan the marketing staff devised for Miami in these playoffs, but the team's play has not conformed.

Players' tempers, now that's a different story.

A public shouting match between Heat star Dwyane Wade and veteran Gary Payton just before halftime of Miami's second straight loss to Chicago on Sunday provided the latest evidence that composure and leadership are proving elusive for the Heat, which has failed to match the energy of a younger, feisty team unburdened by expectation.

The exchange, which apparently was precipitated by Payton's frustration at Wade's having passed up an open shot, provided the most memorable dose of fight that Miami, the conference's No. 2 seed, showed during the 93-87 loss.

"We're just not happy with ourselves right now," Miami forward Udonis Haslem said Monday. "It's not because the series is tied 2-2, but because we haven't done the things we talk about."

The Heat has lurched and staggered so clumsily that it has failed to do the obvious: keep one of the most dominant centers in NBA history involved. Saddled with early fouls that partly can be attributed to his teammates' defensive breakdowns, Shaquille O'Neal has spent nearly half of the last two games on the bench. He has scored just eight and 16 points.

"We all want it bad," Wade said. "When you want it bad, you start pressing. I think we got to get out of pressing and start playing basketball."

Considering the injuries Heat players suffered during the regular season's stretch run, periods of inconsistency were not unexpected. But given the depth of the team's roster, rebuilt after last year's team advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing in seven games to Detroit, and the number of veterans populating it, it's more difficult to understand how it could be teetering so close to an implosion.

"For us to have a lot of veteran guys," Wade said, "I don't think we are as poised as we should be."

Wade and other Heat players deny that a collapse is imminent, but the blowup between Wade and Payton along with ejections followed by one-game suspensions in previous games for James Posey (for a flagrant foul on Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich) and Haslem (for throwing his protective mouthpiece at a referee) provide plenty of reason to believe Miami's problems are mental as much as physical -- and that they are significant.

"We did not rise to the occasion at all," Miami Coach Pat Riley said about the Heat's two games in Chicago. "We went out there, and we just came to a walk. We did not press the issue at all."

After a short film session Monday, the Miami players seemed both perplexed and annoyed by their predicament. Players realize if they cannot turn the momentum Tuesday night, they would face a possible elimination game Thursday at Chicago's United Center, where Miami has never won in the postseason.

Several players, including Wade, said Sunday's spat was blown out of proportion and that it was merely an understandable explosion of emotion in a high-pressure situation. Riley, forward Antoine Walker, O'Neal and big man Alonzo Mourning were among those who tried to referee the affair, which began with words hollered on the court after a turnover, carried into a timeout huddle and spilled into the walk to the halftime locker room. Riley and several players stepped between Wade and Payton on the sideline.

Though players have declined to discuss the incident extensively, Mourning noted Monday that Wade's youth might have played a part, saying some friction resulted from "a younger guy trying to correct a veteran." Wade, arguably the team's biggest star, is 24; Payton, a backup, is 37.

"It looked worse than what it was to me," Wade said. "It was just a disagreement on my part and on his part. . . . All I was trying to do was talk to him. . . . At that time in the game, our competitive nature takes over."

Payton was not available to comment.

If only the Heat had applied that aggression to the Bulls. Miami's players went to the free throw line so infrequently in Game 4 (five times vs. 31 for the Bulls), one could fairly speculate either that the referees had it in for the Heat (O'Neal offered such an assessment after fouls curtailed his playing time in Game 3 and received a $25,000 fine from the league) or Miami is putting forth some of the most passive playoff basketball ever from a Riley-coached team.

In either case, it's not a good situation.

"We need energy across the board, to start the game and finish the game. I just don't think we've been bringing that," said Mourning, still not at full strength since his return last week from a torn calf. "It's something I can't figure out, especially considering the circumstances. This is a playoff stage. . . . It puzzles me as to why we wouldn't try to strive for perfection on every possession. It doesn't seem like we're responding the way we should from that perspective."

And there's been the considerable matter of O'Neal's limited playing time. Other than his role in resolving Sunday's dispute (O'Neal reportedly tried to calm down Payton, still angry at the tone Wade used with him, as they walked to the halftime locker room), O'Neal has been an awkward outsider in the last two games, grimly cheering on backup center Michael Doleac.

After Game 3, he called the performance "very, very humiliating." On Sunday in Chicago, he ducked out of the locker room without comment. O'Neal was unavailable Monday because his wife gave birth that morning to their sixth child.

"This is Shaq's team, okay?" Mourning said. "We need Shaq on the floor, we need Shaq out of foul trouble and we need him to play well."

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