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For hot-and-cold Miami, forecast cloudy

WP: It's been an ordinary week for the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, which is to say it's been littered with chaos, misfortune and bizarre plot twists that have spawned continued questions about the mental and physical well-being of this perplexing team a little more than a week before the playoffs begin.
Heat Cavaliers Basketball
Dwyane Wade missed several weeks after a shoulder injury in February.Mark Duncan / AP
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It's been an ordinary week for the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, which is to say it's been littered with chaos, misfortune and bizarre plot twists that have spawned continued questions about the mental and physical well-being of this perplexing team a little more than a week before the playoffs begin.

The Heat got an unexpected resurrection late on Easter Sunday, when superstar guard Dwyane Wade asked to play for the first time since dislocating his shoulder Feb. 21. Wade entered Sunday night's game against the Charlotte Bobcats to a wild ovation in front of a roaring home crowd, which expected the Heat — so frequently lacking a healthy starting five — to finally begin fine-tuning for the postseason.

But as has often been the case this season, the good news was obscured by a cloud of negativity that will surround Miami heading into Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards at American Airlines Arena, an important one for two teams jockeying for playoff position. Miami needs to win to have any hope of claiming the No. 3 playoff seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Wizards, meantime, are trying to hang on to the sixth seed.

"There's been a lot going on, man, but we're still there," Wade said Monday. "We're still in the thick of things. We're not going anywhere. It's not been a picture-perfect season . . . but we all have to come together and do our job."

Though few teams besides the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s have cruised to repeat championships, it's difficult to imagine a title defense laden with more unabated suffering, much of it self-inflicted, than the Heat has experienced this season, which began with a 42-point loss to the Chicago Bulls on the night players received their 2006 championship rings.

"We're going to have probably the toughest ride any defending champion has ever had," Riley said Monday about Miami's position entering the playoffs. "That's where we've put ourselves."

Despite the celebration surrounding Wade's return, the Heat fell behind by double digits before losing in overtime to the lowly Bobcats on Sunday, putting forth a feeble effort Riley described as "atrocious." With Wade looking out of sync with both his shooting and teammates, Miami sorely damaged its chances of grabbing the No. 3 seed while leaving fans wondering whether a week would be enough to work out the kinks.

"Am I worried?" guard Eddie Jones said after the game. "I think we have to be a little concerned about what's going on."

About seven hours later, starting forward James Posey was charged with driving while intoxicated in Miami Beach. (He said in a statement later he was neither driving nor intoxicated, but he was not available to comment because he was still at the Miami-Dade County jail while the team worked out.)

That meant three key players missed that day's practice. Starting forward Udonis Haslem, the only player to start every game for Miami, sat out with a groin injury and then missed his first game of the season Tuesday night. So did backup guard Gary Payton, who tore his calf muscle during Monday's practice and will be out two to three weeks. Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, who missed 41 games after knee surgery at the start of the season, was healthy but left the team later Monday to join his family after the death of his paternal grandfather. O'Neal missed Tuesday's 92-82 loss in Charlotte and was considered questionable for Wednesday against the Wizards.

"It's hard," forward Antoine Walker said. "There's been no consistency as far as who's going to play and who's getting big-time minutes."

Yet for all of its injury troubles and occasionally appalling underachievement — Riley harps on this constantly, on Monday accusing Miami's veterans of being "schizophrenic" with regard to effort — the Heat has rebounded magnificently at the oddest times, giving the Miami faithful hope that hope has not been exhausted.

The first revival came earlier this year, when things seemed bleakest: With Miami's record at four games under .500 in early January, Riley suspended Walker and Posey for failing to meet a team body-fat standard and promptly took a leave of absence to undergo two surgeries, one to correct the damage he did to his knee while kicking the locker room door in frustration. As talk show callers debated whether the limping Riley had bailed on the Heat, O'Neal returned Jan. 24 and Miami gradually climbed above .500 in six weeks under interim coach Ron Rothstein.

The second rebirth came after another shockwave: Wade dislocated his shoulder on the very night Riley returned to the bench. But instead of a collapse, Miami won 16 of its next 23 games, including nine in a row. Riley was named NBA coach of the month for March.

"We have other guys on this team," Posey said Sunday. "That's why we're a veteran team. . . . We're going to play hard and give ourselves a chance to win games. We went to a different style [during Wade's absence] and were successful with it."

With Wade out, the Heat resembled the hard-nosed Riley teams of old, slowing down the game and throwing the ball into the post on nearly every possession. The 30-somethings on Miami's roster responded. O'Neal, quiet and sometimes ineffectual during last season's playoff run, stepped up his performance, perhaps energized by his long rest at the beginning of the season. Despite the change in pace, Riley said he altered nothing fundamental; guard Jason Williams, he said, ran plays usually called for Wade, often stopping to pop jumpers rather than penetrating like Wade would.

"If we're making a great effort," Riley said, "we can overcome almost anything."

The season bears this resemblance to last year's title run: Until Miami actually defeated the Dallas Mavericks in six games after losing the first two games of the NBA Finals, few seemed to think the hot-and-cold Heat could pull off a championship. Whether this season will be another Cinderella story or a lesson in how not to go about defending a title remains to be seen.

"We're not as close [to top form] as we should be," Wade said. "As long as we stay together in the locker room, and we have been doing that . . . the sky's the limit.

"We had a lot of tough days last year and [we're having] a lot of tough days this year," Wade also said. "It's just more noticeable because we're champions."