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Riley's Heat a bit less intense this time

WP: Coach has been going easy on his team in hopes of avoiding injuries
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Someone stumbling into one of the closed Miami Heat practices at American Airlines Arena on any given weekday might incorrectly assume he or she had walked into a spinning class. Alongside a practice court that would have a breathtaking view of Biscayne Bay if not for the immense curtains Heat Coach and President Pat Riley had installed years ago, players mount personalized stationary bikes and execute individually tailored cycling programs while music blares and chatter ensues.

It's often the only hard, physical activity the Heat players will do on a given day.

Before Riley returned to coaching on Dec. 12 after a 2 1/2-year absence, he seemed to enjoy making his players hurt on the practice court, believing they would play harder by practicing harder. Since coming out of coaching retirement after the resignation of Stan Van Gundy, Riley has plainly tossed that philosophy in the trash. Once driven by a fear of failure, Riley now seems guided by a fear of injuries.

Considered one of the league's most demanding old-school coaches just a few years ago, Riley seems to have evolved into one of the more avant-garde as he tries to ensure that his recently remade team, more veteran than previously, doesn't repeat the misery of last year as it opens the playoffs Saturday against the Chicago Bulls as the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed. Under Van Gundy, a Riley coaching disciple and former assistant, late-season injuries sidelined or hobbled most valuable player candidate Dwyane Wade and fellow star Shaquille O'Neal, who are surrounded by a different cast but remain the team's core.

Riley, in his 11th season with Miami, has become known for sprint-free, jump-free, pounding-free workouts that tax only the players' hearts (through the conditioning on exercise cycles) and minds (through film sessions and endless walk-throughs).

"We have changed," Riley said after a recent defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers. "I'm a little more gun-shy based on what happened the last three or four years when we had great seasons and the playoffs come, and one of our players is maimed. . . . (I wanted to) be more careful this year," said Riley, who returned to the team Thursday after spending four days tending to his ailing mother in Upstate New York.

Even on days the team runs the court, Riley said, Heat players will do rebounding drills without actually rebounding. Some are encouraged to sit out to rest their aging or aching legs. During scrimmages, guys are all but forbidden from touching Wade, who wears hip and thigh pads under his uniform and whose rib injury late last season, many believe, cost the team a trip to the NBA Finals. Once the Heat locked up the No. 2 seed last Friday, Riley became more concerned with protecting his stars than fine-tuning them. Neither Wade nor O'Neal played one minute of the Heat's last two regular season games.

"He's very cautious with guys' health and bodies," forward Antoine Walker said. "But he still wants us to be in tip-top shape."

Despite the transformation in Riley's approach, the Heat lately has run into what has become something of an annual spring tradition in Miami under Riley: rotten luck. The franchise that for years bumped into the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, then lost legendary playoff tussles with the Knicks, and finally lost franchise player Alonzo Mourning to kidney disease (he returned to the team last year as a backup), watched O'Neal start last year's playoffs injured. And then, in what proved to be the decisive blow, Wade suffered a rib injury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit. Miami, up 3-2 in the series, lost Games 6 and 7.

"To this day, we still feel what happened last year," Wade said. "We understand we were seconds away from going to the Finals. . . . It still hurts inside."

The hottest team in the league for a while after Riley took over, Miami struggled during the last weeks of the regular season as injuries once again infiltrated the roster. Even before, many believed this team was better than the one that nearly reached the Finals last year. Its record suggests otherwise: the 2004-05 squad, which included Eddie Jones, Damon Jones and Rasual Butler, won 59 games. This one, with Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey, all of whom were acquired in a five-team, 13-player trade last August, finished with 52 victories.

Still, Heat players say this group is deeper than last year's. O'Neal attributed the drop-off in victories to concentration lapses during the season. Those lapses, it seems, have drawn Riley's ire; he has expressed frustration with his starting five's energy level early in games.

"I know we don't have a confidence problem," O'Neal said when asked about the late-season struggles. "I think guys are just bored, ready to get into the playoffs. . . . This year we let about 15 or 17 games slip away. Last year, we let about five to 10 slip away."

Better or worse than last year's squad, bored or occasionally overmatched, this much is clear: Miami's starting five and top eight players have barely been on the floor together in recent weeks. Williams and Posey missed a combined 15 games over the last three weeks of the season. The Heat hopes Mourning, considered the team's defensive stopper and emotional leader, will be ready for the Bulls series after tearing his right calf muscle at the end of March. It's unclear how effective he will be.

The late-season slide and lack of continuity in the lineup leave the Heat looking ripe for a possible first- or second-round ouster, a result that would qualify as thoroughly unacceptable in the Riley Era and which would have been unthinkable at the start of the season. Even healthy, the Heat has struggled against the league's top four teams. Miami posted a 1-9 record this year against Detroit, San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. If you throw in New Jersey and Cleveland, Miami's mark improves slightly, to 4-14.

Things never quite got going smoothly. O'Neal missed 18 games early in the season because of a severely sprained right ankle. Van Gundy tendered his resignation for family reasons three days after O'Neal returned, eliciting charges throughout the league that Riley pushed him out (a source close to the team rebutted that claim by noting that Van Gundy, who has done advance scouting for the team since his departure, was not paid his coaching salary for the entire season, the usual procedure when a coach is forced to step down). Detroit surged to the top of the Eastern Conference so forcefully that Miami never really seemed to be in the race.

The 34-year-old O'Neal, meantime, has not dominated as he has in the past. His scoring average (20 points) is the lowest of his 14 seasons, though his 60 percent shooting average is on par with his best.

O'Neal says he has not slowed down; rather, his priorities have changed -- "The day I stopped worrying about stats was the day I started winning," he said -- and clearly this is a team that revolves around, and depends upon the health of, the electric Wade. Meantime, a solid, reliable No. 3 scoring option has not emerged. Walker, who perhaps hoped to assume that role, did not even start for most of the season.

And now, of course, injuries raise plenty of questions about the Heat's readiness for the grind of the NBA playoffs. The confidence of even the usually unflappable Riley seems shaken. Riley, who won four championships with the Lakers in the '80s but hasn't won one since, seems to have come to terms with his team's flaws, injury-induced or intrinsic. He certainly has grown accustomed to crushing disappointment. During a recent interview, he described his team "still a work in progress," saying team executives would keep "working it until we get the team we want."

He was quick to add that this was the team he wanted now, but few figured Riley had anything less on his mind than a title when he made what was considered a stunning array of changes to what had already been a very good team.

Injuries, of course, can change a coach's approach and a team's course.

"You'd love to have the team you've put on a piece of paper with the depth chart," Riley said. "You'd love to have them every game, but that's not been possible for us because of health. Injuries disrupt the rhythm and confidence of a team. It just does. I just hope and pray that by the playoffs, we have everybody healthy and on the same page, and we can go with a full complement of players and see where this train takes us."