|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2006||[Print without images]|
They said, "We're not worried about minutes." Sure, we snickered and chortled. In scrimmages, maybe.
They told us, "We're just here to win a title," and our eyes rolled in unison. That's what they all say.
|Watch a replay of Game 6 Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.|
They told us they'd stay the course if the season got off to a rocky start, and then the laughter really kicked up a notch.
But in the end we were the suckers. Despite all the disparate talents the Miami Heat brought in during the offseason, and all the career starters who had to accept fewer minutes, and all the troubles they endured during a 10-10 start and a resultant coaching change, those veteran imports stayed the course.
They didn't gripe about minutes or shots or much of anything en route to the franchise's first-ever title. The Heat talked the talk that everyone talks on media day. But in a rare departure from the NBA norm, they walked the walk, too.
"There was a lot of conjecture throughout the course of the year about our team, about the character, about certain players, it wouldn't work, the chemistry," said Pat Riley. "People just don't know how much these guys really wanted it."
For me, it was a full-circle moment. I was at Miami's media day in October, when a group of disbelieving writers attempted to discern how all these new players planned to share one basketball, and I was as cynical as any of them. Antoine Walker, James Posey, Jason Williams and Gary Payton had been starters the previous season. Each was accustomed to getting his 40 minutes a night and being an integral part of his team's offense.
Walker told me on media day, "I understood that I'd be getting fewer touches and fewer minutes when I came here."But we still doubted, because we weren't sure he understood how much fewer those numbers would be. Sure enough he didn't complain -- as many of us thought he might -- when both those predictions came true. While Walker was on the bench for the final minutes tonight -- as he was for most playoff games -- he nonetheless celebrated as enthusiastically as anyone when his backup, Posey, hit two huge shots down the stretch. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Alonzo Mourning. Way back in October, Zo said it wouldn't be a problem, and he knew from experience. "You guys said the same thing when I came here," said Mourning, who had fit in seamlessly as a backup the previous year. "It would be one thing if we were dealing with some young, inexperienced rookies. But these are seasoned veterans, guys that have won nothing. They smelled it, but the only guy here who has won anything was Shaq. I don't think it's going to be about playing time or who gets the ball." Sure enough, there was Zo again, whooping it up in the winning locker room. "15 Strong," he chanted, repeating the Heat's mantra for much of the postseason. There was Walker, enduring a rough shooting night but grabbing 11 rebounds and taking a few turns in Miami's tag-team defense on Dirk Nowitzki. There was Payton, scoring 16 points the entire series but making two of the biggest shots of Miami's season. There was Posey, quietly deferring to Wade and Shaq before hitting two huge buckets in the final minutes of Game 6. And there was Williams, setting the table with seven assists before giving way to Payton in crunch time. "[Pat Riley] just told us to play together," said Payton. "Stay strong, 15 strong, and we'd be champions. And that's what we did." In retrospect, Mourning was right: We underestimated how important the players' experience was. If Miami had brought in younger players who needed to get touches, it might have been a problem. But players like Walker, Mourning and Payton had been the alpha dog already, and realized at some point that the big prize would come at a cost of shots and minutes. "At that point you're searching for individual accolades," Walker said to me back in October about his younger years. "Now I'm more mature. I want that ring." They wanted it more than shots or minutes, apparently, and in spite of our cynicism, they're champions as a result. "I've been working hard for 16 years trying to get [a ring] and now I've got one." said Payton. "It's beautiful." John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.