Riley's path was new, but result is familiar

June 04, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Pat Riley kept saying it wasn't about him.

The coach and vice president of the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat hasn't been wrong about much this season, even if the way he got to where he is has a lot of wrong about it. But on the night the team he built finally reached the NBA Finals, he was wrong about whose victory this really was.

It was a win for Shaquille O'Neal - but Riley pulled the trigger on one of the great thefts of all time, from the Los Angeles Lakers because Kobe Bryant couldn't play nice. It was a win for Dwyane Wade, author of Flu Game II in Miami's Game 6 clincher over the Detroit Pistons - but Riley had brought him in with the fruits (a high pick) of one of his worst coaching records.

Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, James Posey all shared in the glory - but they were there because Riley went to a new level of nervy in getting all four of them while gutting so much of last year's near-Finals team.

Yes, this is about Riley, in Stage 4 of a legendary coaching career. And a big reason this is about Riley is the way he took over coaching the team he broke up and reconstructed. No matter what he and his loyal lieutenant Stan Van Gundy told everybody back in December, Riley's takeover came off as graceless and tasteless, and will follow the coach and his team around the Finals like a little odor.

It will be part of Riley's legacy - like the faxed resignation from the New York Knicks in 1995 that began his tenure in Miami. And like the three Finals trips with three different teams spread across nearly two decades and three distinctly dissimilar eras of NBA history. Showtime in the 1980s, Elbow-time in the '90s, and now, a renaissance that blends the best of both eras. No wonder he's so at home here.

Riley's story will be one of the most compelling of the Finals, and of a postseason that miraculously manages to top itself every night. Most compelling, and most confounding. Very typical Riley. He's had his moments of ego run amok. But has he ever earned it. If you'd forgotten how good he is at his job, you sure remember now.

Now, it appears, he's got this general manager gig figured out, too. Always the master motivator, by any means necessary (dunking his head in ice water, guaranteeing repeat titles, joining in bench-clearing brawls), he had spent most of his time in charge of the Heat sabotaging his own coaching. Before the 2003-04 season, he decided he'd be better off sabotaging someone else's coaching - Van Gundy's - when he was handed the gig with a rapidly crumbling roster days before the season started.

By later blowing up the team that Van Gundy got to the seventh game of the 2005 Eastern finals - and, of course, by blowing up Van Gundy even later - Riley was asking for abuse, and got it. The Heat won seven fewer games than last year. It went 2-12 against other division winners. It let the Chicago Bulls tie the first-round series 2-2 before eliminating them, and got clobbered by the New Jersey Nets at home in Game 1 of the second round.

Eulogies were written about the team, last rites spoken over O'Neal, goat horns prepared for Riley. His only redemption would be to get beyond where Van Gundy had gotten. In spite of everything, he did.

You can't delete the circumstances by which he took over as coach, but neither can you take these results away from him.

How masterful was this job? His team of patched-together ex-knuckleheads led by a perpetually maligned O'Neal and his latest precocious sidekick had America rooting it on against a Pistons team that once had been the epitome of unselfish, ego-free teamwork.

Of course, the Pistons did a masterful job of torching their own legacy and reputation, by getting supremely full of themselves as their overwhelming regular season rolled into an initially dominant postseason. Then LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers slapped the arrogant smirks off their faces, and they never got their aura back, replacing it with a cheap imitation full of bluster, finger-pointing and back-stabbing.

It was as if the Patriots had started losing, and Tom Brady had publicly called out his butterfingered receivers and demanded that Bill Belichick give everybody a break and quit. Nobody will look at the Pistons the same way again, and they deserve nothing better.

This time it was Pat Riley and his guys that did things "the right way." Plus, this team was made up in much the same fashion as the Lakers team - with Shaq - against whom the Pistons had made their mark in the 2004 Finals. You have to figure Kobe's not sleeping well these days.

Riley probably sleeps very well. He can afford to let others take credit. He knows how good he is. It may be his greatest personality flaw. But without it, he wouldn't be who he is - coach of the Eastern Conference champions. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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