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Out-of-shape Shaq, out-of-answers Riles headed for a fall

| Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The two guys with their legacies awaiting only a final chapter did little and said even less about the outcome.

The Heat's Shaquille O'Neal, who already owns three NBA championship rings but desperately wants another without Kobe Bryant as his sidekick, was outscored and outrebounded Sunday night in Game 2 by Erick Dampier - the first time that happened in 25 head-to-head meetings.

Pat Riley, who has four rings from coaching the Lakers' "Showtime" teams but none since, was similarly outfoxed by Mavericks counterpart Avery Johnson - for the second time in as many games.

But before anybody jumped to the logical conclusion, namely that Dallas should pack a broom as the finals head east to Miami for three games, Riles reminded everyone his team has stumbled down this road before - as recently as the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"Everybody has written our team off, even in Chicago, when we lost two games in Chicago. Then we got buried by New Jersey in the first game and we were history. Then we were history against Detroit. Even when we were ahead 3-1, we were history.

"So I'm sure we're history right now," he added. "We'll see what happens at home."

The normally loquacious O'Neal held his tongue after the Mavericks' 99-85 win gave them a 2-0 lead in the series. That bit of restraint cost him $10,000, and the Heat organization another $25,000, but saved him at least that much in embarrassment.

Two years ago, not long after Shaq fled LA for Miami, Dampier signed a big deal in Dallas and immediately declared himself the second-best center in the league. O'Neal responded by renaming Dampier "Erica," then got a little extra mileage out of the gag by insisting the only place Dampier would be a dominant center was in the WNBA. And when an injury in the playoffs last year limited his effectiveness, he couldn't resist telling reporters he was "playing like Erick Dampier."

Shaq should be so lucky. Out of shape or patience, or maybe both, he was outplayed by Dampier everywhere on the court and across the stat line. As promised, the Heat pounded the ball down into O'Neal in the post on their opening possession and he dropped in a nifty layup. But the Mavericks settled into essentially the same defense as in Game 1, doubling and tripling O'Neal on every subsequent touch, forcing him to pass the ball out of the post and daring his supporting cast, again, to beat them.

In his prime, O'Neal would have gone over or through Dampier and his second, DeSagana Diop, as often as necessary, but now he needs help. The Heat provided more than the first time around, but not much. They shot 41 percent from the floor, after a frightful 37-percent performance in the opening game.

Dallas, meanwhile, added a variety of screens at the other end of the floor to create room for Dirk Nowitzki to operate, which in turn freed up Jerry Stackhouse for a handful of wide-open jumpers, and the outcome was effectively sealed at halftime. Shaq sat most of the second half, Riley conceded, to conserve energy in what was by then a lost cause.

Teams that come out flat in finals series rarely recover - 25 of the 27 that took a 2-0 lead have gone on to win - but most respond by changing things up in a hurry. Riley's strong suit as a coach has always been motivation, as opposed to strategy, but he looks like someone who has run out of answers.

When he deep-sixed Stan Van Gundy and traded a seat in the executive suite for one on the bench, the plan was to coax more effort from a veteran team.

"I don't think it had anything to do with energy," Riley said about Sunday night's loss. "The whole thing now is about the next game, and trying to leave this behind us. Maybe set a fire under us to do something different than what we did here."

Of course, that was the plan after the Heat got pounded in Game 1. Miami is fighting a deficit in the effort department, but it's hardly the only one. O'Neal can rouse himself to take over games for a short time, but the cavalry isn't going to arrive in time. The Heat still have no answer for Nowitzki, or Josh Howard or Stackhouse. And no matter how many inspirational ploys Riley cooks up in the locker room, it's clear he's out of ideas once Miami sets foot on the court.

For different reasons, he and Shaq got so swept up in the idea that these finals would be their crowning achievement, the payoff for doing things the way they always had in the past, that they never drew up a Plan B. And now it's too late.

Yet when someone asked Dwyane Wade, the young superstar who was supposed to pick up the slack, what the Heat had to change heading into Game 3, he didn't hesitate.

"Everything," he said.

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