Most championship teams are burdened with the pressure of repeating. This one is preoccupied with reaching .500.
A remarkable array of injuries, mystifyingly poor play from some corners and a super-cool coach who utterly lost his cool during a postgame tirade three weeks ago have headlined the Miami Heat's season, which began with a 42-point loss on the very night players received their massive, diamond-studded 2006 championship rings.
Though the roster nearly is identical to the one that won the franchise's first title, there haven't been many familiar faces on the court lately. Shaquille O'Neal will miss his 18th game when the Heat visits the Washington Wizards on Friday because of knee surgery that is expected to keep him out at least until mid-January. Dwyane Wade, the most valuable player of last season's NBA Finals, sat out Wednesday's 99-89 loss to the Phoenix Suns and did not travel to Washington because of surgery to remove two wisdom teeth.
Nearly every major contributor from last season's team has missed time because of illness or injury.
"We just all look forward to the day we're all playing together," Wade said after Monday's 99-77 victory over Toronto. "That'll be exciting. We all dream of that."
Yet even before the injuries reached the point of absurdity — Wade's tooth trouble increased to 45 the number of games missed by hurt players — the Heat was struggling so mightily that the floor-to-ceiling photographs of last season's success that majestically wallpaper the underbelly of American Airlines Arena and the larger-than-life championship trophies painted on the double doorways to the locker room seemed more mocking than motivating.
The Heat, in the words of O'Neal, has been getting "kicked and stomped."
"We can't afford to lose any more games right now," Miami center Alonzo Mourning said. Mourning said nobody was panicking, but added, "I do think we're concerned at this particular time."
Riley, known for blockbuster deals during his tenure in Miami, such as the one that brought O'Neal to the Heat in 2004, even ignited a glimmer of personnel uncertainty — perhaps strategically — after Wednesday's loss to the Suns, acknowledging he was interested in a possible trade for Allen Iverson, the disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers guard. That admission came after Riley said the mop-up effort by some of his little-used young players was the only positive in a sub-par performance that dropped Miami's record to 9-12.
Five games into the season, Riley told reporters "most coaches would go crazy" because of the Heat's lackadaisical attitude. A week later, he called Miami "one of the worst defensive teams right now that I've ever coached." Five nights after that, he used the word "embarrassed" when asked about the Heat's offensive production. Finally, after a 20-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 22, he got really upset.
After a closed-door tongue-lashing to his team that local reporters said could be heard outside the locker room, he described the Heat's play that night as spiraling from "disgusting to discouraging to despicable." He declared he would no longer be the "good daddy" to his players. And, for good measure, he added that he most certainly would not "allow people to crap on this franchise."
Forward Antoine Walker got benched in the Heat's next game — another loss. So did guard Gary Payton, who had been starting in place of the banged-up Jason Williams. (Payton himself later was felled by an inflamed Achilles' tendon and ear infection.) Payton's absence and Williams's limited availability because of offseason knee surgery forced Wade to move into the point guard spot — until he, too, bowed out of the lineup, succumbing to the pain in his jaw this week.
"We're just trying," Walker said, "to weather the storm."
Riley's growing impatience, particularly with the team's play at home (it has a 4-7 record in Miami), has resulted in harder, longer practices.
Walker and Wade said they suspected during training camp that the Heat might struggle early, given that a summer of celebration and surgeries seemed to take its toll on some players' conditioning. In Wade's case, he simply was run-down after competing for the U.S. national team, which claimed the bronze medal at the world championships in Japan.
If there has been any consolation during the Heat's slide, it's been the similarity to the team's start last season, when Miami began with a 10-10 record and a slew of injuries. The naysayers came out then, too.
But the team righted itself, playing spotty but plucky basketball. In the Finals, the Heat lost the first two games to the Dallas Mavericks, but reeled off four straight wins to earn the title.
Riley seems concerned that his players will assume such resurrections are routine.
"It's a different year," he said. "It could go the other way. It's in their subconscious, and I don't want it to lay in their subconscious that you get off to a bad start, play poorly, then turn it into a honeymoon in the end."
Things could, of course, be worse.
"I'm glad we're not, like, 20-35, where you couldn't work yourself out of it" Payton said. "Our division helps us, too."
In fact, the entire Eastern Conference helps. The Heat would have earned the eighth seed in the playoffs had the season ended after Wednesday's games.
O'Neal, who walks gingerly through the locker room in fashionable suits these days, says he won't return to action until his knee is "1,000 percent" healthy. His role seems to be trying to keep spirits up.
"It can't get no worse," O'Neal said. "It can only get better. It will."