Saturday, March 5, 2011
Don't expect pat answer for Heat's woes
By Michael Wallace
MIAMI -- Frustration had shoved him, Erick Dampier style, well beyond his wit's end.
None of his methods appeared to be working. Not the sometimes corny, more often clever motivational messages. Not the grueling practices that dragged on well past two hours. Not the rotation tweaks, 20-second timeouts and tantrums.
Already by this point, the team's better players seemed to have tuned him out. So after a November blowout loss on the road, the Miami Heat's coach lost his freaking mind. Simply snapped.
No, not Erik Spoelstra, the battered coach now at the helm of this recent headache of a Heat team that faces the Chicago Bulls in a pivotal Eastern Conference showdown Sunday. We'll get to him later.
For now, we're talking Pat Riley. Remember him? Of course you do. He's the team president and Hall of Fame former coach some disgruntled, short-sighted, knee-jerk, misguided Miami fans are summoning to the bench to fix this current hot mess that's embroiled the Heat.
Pat wants no part of this from the bench. He didn't in November, when this team sputtered to that 9-8 start and balked at some of Spoelstra's methods. And he doesn't want to take over now.
Sure, I remember and respect Riley for all of his greatness, too. But I also recall a Riley who, near the end, would reach deep into his bag of coaching tips and tricks and come up with lint. This was the Riley who desperately attempted to get through to a proud, egotistical, hard-headed, high-expectations team that just didn't seem to respond.
“Me?” an agitated Riley shot back when asked what he could do as coach to shake his team out of an embarrassing funk. “I should play. I should suit up. I'd play better than some of them right now. I guarantee you. I swear to God. With an old hip, 62 years old, can't [expletive] see. I'll play better than some of my guys tonight. Come on.”
Those who have covered the legendary coach at some point over the course of his five championships and the moves from Los Angeles through New York and to Miami all have a defining, Pat Riley Moment. This one was mine.
It came seven games into the 2007-08 season. This was two seasons after the Heat's 2006 championship run and one season removed from a title defense that sputtered into disarray. But on this night, Nov. 13, 2007, Riley reached a boiling point.
Riley's hope was that Dwyane Wade, then working his way back from offseason shoulder and knee surgeries, would return to the lineup at any moment. Riley's reality was that Ricky Davis was his starting shooting guard.
Another of Riley's hopes was that Shaquille O'Neal would use this difficult stretch to man up, assume a leadership role and inspire the team through a Tuesday night game at a half-empty arena in Charlotte. Riley's sobering reality was that a 37-year-old Alonzo Mourning was all he had going for him there.
The result was a 25-point loss to the Bobcats. The reaction was the most gangster postgame rant Riley might have ever delivered. The realization was that this is a players league, and there are times when even the best coaching minds to ever bless the bench can't do anything about it. The rest is history.
Riley would stumble into the Hall of Fame at the completion of that injury-riddled, frustration-filled, disastrous 15-67 season that tied the worst finish in franchise history.
But back on that night in Charlotte, there was still hope.
Hope that Ricky Davis and Mark Blount would be the complementary pieces to Wade, Shaq and Zo that would extend Miami's championship window. Riley was wrong. He gambled and lost. Big. He desperately pushed and failed.
If that season taught him nothing else, it was the virtues of process and the curses of panic.
Fast-forward three seasons to now, and the Heat are at another dangerous, desperate crossroads. The Heat have lost four of their last five games and are in danger of falling to third place in the East with a loss to the Bulls on Sunday. Miami's best players -- Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh -- are cracking in key moments of close games and then questioning the approach.
The Heat are squandering big leads and then blowing some disturbing hot air after demoralizing losses. And questions linger -- even within the locker room -- as to whether the level of mental toughness among Wade, LeBron and Bosh will ever match their immense talent.
To panic now would be to replace Spoelstra and pretend that this is all a coaching problem. It's not. This is on the players. This is on LeBron, Dwyane and Bosh. Make no mistake about it, this team would drive Riley crazy on the bench, too.
The difference is that Riley wouldn't hesitate to call those guys out in public. He wouldn't think twice about questioning their resolve while suggesting he'd 'suit up' now at age 65 with that replaced hip, bad knee and poor vision and still execute with more pride and passion than some on this team.
Is it coaching that had the Heat giving up 33 3-pointers the past two games with a perimeter defense that's developed Swiss cheese type holes in it? Or is it a lack of disciple on defensive assignments?
Is it coaching that has the Heat a league-worst 1 of 14 from the field this season on potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter? Or is it the result of Wade not touching the ball enough in those moments and sitting back while LeBron and Bosh either break off plays early, audible into hero ball regardless of the consequences?
Spoelstra's handling of the rotation, questionable adjustments and decisions on late-game personnel have left plenty to be desired at times this season. So there's enough blame to go around for a Heat team that's 14-17 against teams with winning records, 5-12 in games decided by five points or less and statistically one of the least-clutch squads in the league.
But any notion that Riley can fix this by simply gelling his hair, tossing on an Armani suit and taking his old seat on the bench is silly and flawed. Buying into that logic would be to suggest that Riley doesn't already have a dominant presence around his $400 million creation.
He attends practices. He sits less than 200 feet from the team's bench at home games. And, as Spoelstra relayed before the Friday's 30-point blowout loss in San Antonio, the two of them communicate -- either by phone or in person -- after each game for instant evaluations.
Riley's there. It's the players who don't show up in clutch moments often enough. Riley could return to the bench and bring Jerry Sloan and Don Nelson to the staff as assistants, but would that get LeBron to bail on the jumpers and drive to the basket just once in a while?
Would it get Bosh, knowing full well there are no other post-up options with his size and skill on the roster, to at least flirt with a power game? Would it get Wade to be more assertive and a little less accommodating to LeBron late in the fourth quarter?
“When you've got that self-willing mentality, you've got good intentions, but at the same time, you're out there taking bad shots,” Mourning said three years ago from the visitors locker room in Charlotte after Riley's rant.
Amazing how Zo's line, having fermented like fine wine, applies to this Heat team today.
Here's another sip.
“It was embarrassing the way we played. At one point, we were down by almost 30.”
That was Udonis Haslem that same night from that Riley-coached, highly-motivated team.
“We've just got to figure it out.”
That's Big Shaq chiming in from the Heat's hot tub time machine.
“Everything's been like this,” Riley pleaded that night. “We've had a few bright moments, but we're not coming together consistently. I just want somebody, anybody, to step up.”
That was from raging Riley back then.
But it's the same sort of desperate plea Spoelstra delivers now.
At this level, with the core of talent Miami has, it's not as much about coaching as it is coaxing.
Indeed, Spoelstra desperately needs a victory Sunday to temporarily quiet the critics.
But even the greats like Riley repeatedly learned these kind of lessons the hard way.
When it comes to execution, you're always at the mercy of those who suit up and play the game.