Sat, Oct 28, 2006 - Page 19 News List

All eyes on Wade as same old Miami defend top spot

AP , NEW YORK

Once the South Beach parties had dwindled and Pat Riley committed to coming back, the dapper Miami coach got to work on his plan for keeping the Heat atop the NBA.

When Riley surveyed his roster, there was Shaquille O'Neal, who looked every one of his 34 years while laboring for a pedestrian 13.7 points per game in the NBA finals. In key reserve roles, he saw 38-year-old Gary Payton and 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning.

And Riley decided, despite his aging stars, to do practically nothing. So back come the same old Miami Heat, who are convinced they're still good enough to get by LeBron James and Big Ben Wallace in the East, and then the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns or whomever else survives in the West.

Sure, the Heat have flaws. But they're also the only team with Dwyane Wade, a bona fide superstar who's already proven he's capable of hiding or overcoming his team's shortcomings all by himself.

"However the prognosticators out there are evaluating our team based on what happened last year. ... I would not want to be a team on the other side of us in a seven-game series, because this is a rise-to-the-occasion type of team," Riley said recently.

"There's something about them, when it's the right time, and it gets hot and it gets real competitive, that they're formidable. I think they showed that," he added.

So when the NBA's new microfiber composite Spalding ball -- no, it's not leather anymore -- gets tossed up on Halloween night next Tuesday in Miami to open the NBA season against the Chicago Bulls, you can bet O'Neal will want to tip it to Wade. As long as it's in his hands, the Heat might still be the best in an NBA that lacks a dominant team.

"That guy is pretty good. I mean really, really, really good," Charlotte Hornets assistant Darrell Walker said.

"He's getting to the point, and I'm telling you I love MJ, but we're going to have to start putting the Jordan rules on him. He's a pretty special player," he said.

There are plenty of those.

Kobe Bryant beat out Allen Iverson and LeBron to win a thrilling scoring race last season, while Steve Nash won a second straight MVP award as recent rules changes allowed offensive stars to shine.

Wade stands out as the brightest of all after what he did in the finals, turning the Heat's 2-0 deficit against Dallas into a six-game victory in a Flash -- Shaq's nickname for him -- and earning that highest of NBA compliments: Comparisons to Michael Jordan.

So for all those teams hoping to pounce on what they see as a vulnerable champion, take heed: "He's going to only get better," Philadelphia 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks said.

"I don't know him, but he looks like a guy that loves to play, loves to make his teammates better. To think that a guy won a championship in his third year and is only going to get better is a scary thought," Cheeks added.

An up-and-coming team to consider would be the Toronto Raptors in the NBA's only non-US city, where No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani from Italy is among a handful of foreign players on the roster.

Not that the Raptors claim to notice their own continental flair.

"We don't talk about those things. We're the Toronto Raptors, Canada's team ... we are an NBA team," coach Sam Mitchell said.

"And all our guys are proven players, and like all players, have a lot to prove once they get to the NBA. But basketball players are basketball players. As a coaching staff, we never walk out there and say, `We have two guys from Spain, a guy from Italy, Rasho Nesterovic from [Slovenia].' We just don't ... it's not that big of a deal to us, it's really not," Mitchell said.

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