Pistons-Heat Rematch Seems Inevitable

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006; 2:23 PM

Can we fast forward to May, already? The Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat are on a collision course for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals once again and if last Thursday's matchup on TNT revealed anything, it's that the next 50 or so games remaining in the regular season are practically irrelevant (with the exception of the Pistons' lofty pursuit of 70 wins).

A postseason matchup between the Bad Boys and the (South) Beach Boys is unavoidable -- like another Ron Artest implosion. Artest has tossed another grenade on the Indiana Pacers' championship pursuits. LeBron James may have just turned 21 but the Cleveland Cavaliers are still boys among men in the East. New Jersey has caught fire but even a non-stop barrage of Jason Kidd lobs to Vince Carter or Richard Jefferson can't make up for the Nets' lack of size.

So, barring a major balance-altering trade or a debilitating injury, the East really comes down to two teams: Detroit and Miami. The remaining nine teams in playoff contention -- Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte and the Knicks aren't included  should be happy with advancing to the second round.

With Shaquille O'Neal still working himself back into physical shape after missing 18 games with an ankle injury, Pat Riley still working himself back into mental shape after stepping away from coaching for more than two seasons, and several new pieces still trying to figure out how they fit, the Heat is taking its time developing an identity. But Miami didn't seem to be too far away from Detroit, which has steamrolled through the first third of the season -- but needed Rasheed Wallace to nail a three-pointer from Flint, Mich., to secure the victory last week at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

"We know we gave them a lot of gifts," O'Neal said. "We still think we can get them in a seven-game series."

The Heat and Pistons will meet three more times in the regular season (Feb. 12, March 22 and April 6), and each game will surely be played with playoff intensity. No doubt, the games will probably mean more to Miami than Detroit, with the Heat still smarting from last season when Dwyane Wade injured his rib cage and it blew a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Riley's offseason overhaul was a direct result of that collapse and with the additions of Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton and James Posey, O'Neal has his sights set on winning another championship.

Not winning a title "will make people want to wear wigs and change their names," O'Neal said recently. "You got great players, got a great coach, got great fans and great city. Anything less would be uncivilized, disappointing."

The Heat (19-13) has gone 8-3 since Riley took over as head coach after Stan Van Gundy stepped down for personal reasons. While Van Gundy was often too intense and frantic, Riley remains cooler than his outward appearance. Riley has his "coach cred" with four championship rings. He also has coached Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. O'Neal likes to mention that Riley has the players' ear. Wade said that he used to spend a good portion of the season griping with officials for foul calls and getting frustrated, but he now he can look over, see Riley and calm down. "He gives me that head nod that you're alright, keep going. That's big," Wade said. "That gives you confidence."

When Walker began discussing the differences with Riley at the helm, he had to stop in mid-sentence. "To be honest with you, it's not just Pat. He's got Shaq back there," Walker said. "Stan didn't have the fortune of coaching Shaq. Shaq back makes us better."

Despite inspired play from Wade and a rejuvenated Alonzo Mourning, the Heat went 9-9 without O'Neal. Riley has made it a priority to ride O'Neal as much as he can -- even at the expense of Mourning's minutes -- which greatly pleases the Big Fella, who complained of a lack of touches in the playoffs last season. In the first three games O'Neal played under Van Gundy, he averaged 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. Under Riley, O'Neal is averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. He has scored at least 20 points in seven of the 11 games Riley has coached. "He's getting better and better," Riley said. "I think he's coming."

Riley, who has played with Wilt Chamberlain and coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing and Mourning, believes he will have continued success with O'Neal. Riley has come to O'Neal's defense (he said he should hire "sumo wrestlers" to help O'Neal deal with physical play down down) and he hasn't been afraid to call out O'Neal for his shortcomings (he told O'Neal that he needed to lose some weight). O'Neal believes he and Riley can be a perfect match. O'Neal hasn't won a championship since 2002, Riley hasn't since 1988. "We could help fulfill each others fantasies. He has a couple [of rings] and he wants more. I have a couple and I want more. So, we can help each other and we can retire in Miami together."

Jobless in Seattle

Bob Weiss was a noted magician, known to do a card trick or two to loosen up his teams. Weiss, however, couldn't pull enough victories from his hat to hold onto his job as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics. Weiss became the second coaching casualty of the season on Tuesday when Seattle fired him after just 30 games and replaced him with Bob Hill. The Sonics have probably been in need of a change ever since they started the season 1-4 with three consecutive losses by a combined 93 points. At the time, there were murmurs that the players had already tuned out Weiss.

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