- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

When the visiting Miami Heat take the floor for Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, they will do so with a roster that looks very little — aside from Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade — like the one that came up one victory shy of a finals appearance last season.

Miami was part of a trade involving 13 players and five teams last summer, one year after it swung a six-player deal to acquire O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers. Gone were defensive specialist Eddie Jones and forward Rasual Butler. Starting point guard Damon Jones and backup Keyon Dooling left via free agency.

In came forward Antoine Walker, erratic guard Jason Williams and forward James Posey, plus free agent Gary Payton. But the turnover didn’t stop there.

On Dec. 12, team president Pat Riley — who led the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to four NBA titles and later coached the New York Knicks — replaced Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, returning to the team he coached from 1995 to 2003.

Wade, a full-fledged superstar in his third season, was as skeptical as anyone about the overhaul.

“I had my doubts whether or not it was going to work,” said Wade, who is averaging a playoff team-high 26.2 points on 51 percent shooting. “But now it looks like they made the right moves.”

The replacements all had major question marks — and character issues — connected with their names.

Williams was an out-of-control point guard in stops at Sacramento and Memphis. Payton had been an elite player in his days with Seattle, but over the last four seasons he had proven more trouble than he was in worth in stints with the Lakers and the Boston Celtics.

Walker, a three-time All-Star, had developed a reputation as a selfish player with poor shot selection.

Posey, an above-average defender not known for much else, was considered by some to be the only Heat acquisition that wasn’t a bad one.

“We never looked at it like that,” Walker said. “We looked at it as an opportunity to have a chance to win a title. Playing with guys like Shaq and Dwyane, you just try to do your part because they’re so talented offensively.”

As late as Dec. 30, however, it wasn’t clear that all the changes had the Heat pointed in the right direction. Miami withstood a career-high 47 points from Washington’s Gilbert Arenas to beat the Wizards 128-113 that night with O’Neal and Wade combining for 62 points and 18 rebounds.

Yet O’Neal’s demeanor afterward indicated he still wasn’t sure Miami could reach its first NBA Finals, the team’s goal since training camp. The Heat had endured a four-game losing streak at the start of December. Before coming to Verizon Center, they lost 106-101 to Detroit, which beat the Heat en route to the finals last season.

“We’ve still got to learn each other; we’re still trying to get used to playing with each other,” O’Neal said, sounding concerned. “Things were really shaken up around here, so we don’t know.”

Nonetheless, there were encouraging signs that night. Walker — part of the largest trade in league history during the offseason — contributed 21 points and 13 rebounds off the bench.

“Antoine is our missing link, our key factor,” O’Neal said. “If he comes in and plays like he did tonight, we’re going to be a hard team to beat. He had a breakout game tonight, so hopefully this is what we’ll continue to see from Antoine.”

Walker didn’t continue to play at that high level, surpassing 21 points just four times the rest of the regular season, but his addition was emblematic of the vast changes the Heat underwent en route to the finals.

To the surprise of many, the new players have played major postseason roles in putting the team in position to win its first title. Walker averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in Miami’s 4-2 dismissal of Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals. More importantly, he achieved those numbers without going outside the flow of the offense.

Williams averaged only one turnover a game against the Pistons. And in Game 6, with Wade limited because of illness, Williams scored 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting, handed out six assists and committed only one turnover in a 95-78 victory.

Williams said the team had concerns about jelling in time to make a run for the title. But, he added, it is Riley’s steadying hand that has the Heat in the finals.

“Pat is a great guy to play for, especially if you have a veteran team like we do,” Williams said. “He knows how to control us and how to practice us. He has us thinking that the sky is the limit.”

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