The Heat's Story Gets Old
A year ago they were resourceful and poised, veterans who were the epitome of old-school basketball -- even their young flash, Dwyane Wade. For the final eight days of this season, neither the spirit nor the flesh was willing and the defending champion Miami Heat simply looked old.
The Heat couldn't guard the Chicago Bulls, couldn't score on them, wasn't as strong or as swift. Miami coaches and players kept talking about playing harder and with more energy because it's easier to say that than face the notion that the challenger is simply better. Truth is, the challengers not only were more athletic and energetic, but more skillful, too. The result, shockingly, was a mismatch, a four-game sweep that eliminated the Heat in the first round.
The Heat had to know the end was near as its plan to send Ben Wallace to the foul line backfired mightily. Miami players grabbed Wallace, the worst percentage foul shooter in NBA history, four times as the clock ticked down, only to watch in frustration as Wallace, who shot 41 percent from the line this season, drain 7 of 8 free throws to preserve and then extend the Bulls lead. "You going to talk about me looking like Larry Bird at the foul line?" Wallace cracked afterward.
The Bulls played their worst game of the series, shooting 38 percent and getting outrebounded by seven. Nevertheless, the Bulls won going away, 92-79, to take Game 4 and this first-round series. It's a story with two distinctive sides, Miami's exit and Chicago's arrival. And nobody loses with the angst and despair of Heat boss Pat Riley. His soliloquies are riveting, and this one was all the more painful because a champion hadn't been swept from the first round of the playoffs in 50 years.
"It's not easy when you don't fulfill your personal expectations," Riley said. "It's one of the most miserable experiences a man will ever have and that's how I think we feel now. We ran into a more formidable opponent. They are a great team . . . a team that is on the rise and they deserved to win, there is no doubt in my mind. They can go a long ways if they continue to play like they're playing. We tried to do a lot of things. They just kept pressing on and pressing on, and nothing ever discourages them."
That, at once, impresses and depresses Riley. It's his team that kept pressing on last year, right through a difficult six-game series with the Bulls and, more notably, a six-game NBA Finals with Dallas after being down two games and 13 points in Game 3. A year ago, nothing discouraged the Heat, which is how Shaq and Wade, Alonzo Mourning and Antoine Walker, Udonis Haslem and James Posey, Gary Payton and Jason Williams won a championship.
But Riley's team never demonstrated that will this season. Injuries and illness were a big part of it. Shaquille O'Neal missed 42 games, Wade 31 and Riley 23.
And Wade, who averaged 34.7 points in the NBA Finals last year, was good against Chicago, but definitely mortal. He had 24 points and 10 assists in Sunday's Game 4, but committed seven turnovers. The Bulls, as a team, committed only five. Wade, robbed of his timing by having to sit out all that time so late in the season, never had one of those blast-furnace performances that led Miami last season and made him, in my book, the best player in the league, even better than Kobe Bryant.
It would be one thing if Miami had a bunch of players to take up the slack, but they don't. Payton, now 38, didn't play in Games 3 and 4, didn't score and didn't have an assist in 18 minutes of Game 4, and the talk is he's retiring. It's time. Jason Williams scored five points and has been playing on one leg; the man once known as "White Chocolate" and seems to have the mileage of a 1990 Volvo is 31. Walker is only 30, but he shuffles around the three-point line like he's Fred Sanford and is a shell of the versatile all-star he was in Boston. Walker took four shots Sunday (and made one), all of them three-pointers. Eddie Jones, who was seen as a midseason acquisition savior, is 35 and didn't play in Game 4. James Posey is 30; he missed 7 of 8 shots in Game 4. Only Alonzo Mourning, 37, with his 14 points on 6-for-6 shooting, looked to be in championship form.
Miami has seven players 30 or older, four of them 35 or older. O'Neal will be back, of course, but he's 35 and while he did have 16 points and seven rebounds in Game 4, and while he's still the best center in the Eastern Conference, his days of dominating games are officially over.
While Wallace hit seven straight foul shots to seal his team's victory, Shaq missed all seven of his Sunday.
So, naturally the question was put to Shaq if he regretted bringing back the band intact for another engagement, knowing that young and hungry teams like the Bulls were waiting in the bushes. "You gotta bring your guys back to try and defend it," Shaq said.
In a day or two, Miami will cease being the story and the Bulls will play on, as a champ-thumper with a whole lot of possibilities. Pistons-Bulls begins Saturday in Detroit. The Bulls, with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon averaging more points than any tandem in the playoffs, didn't seem to care that Miami was the opponent. They began the season with a 42-point victory here on Miami's "ring night" and ended it with a 13-point victory for a sweep. "They had our number the first game of the season and the last game of the season," Shaq said. "They played a lot harder. They got the rebounds, all the loose balls. They just did everything better than we did."
Riley, growing introspective, said: "It was a great year and a great experience. This team took me to a place I haven't been to in a long time. When you get to the top of the mountain you don't camp out; you come back down and have to climb it again. They beat us eight out of nine this year. We could never get a handle on them. We could never get a handle on their speed, quickness and their energy."