Getting one defeat removed from their record last week, however temporary, had to feel good, like a teacher's cocker spaniel eating the grades from a particularly odious pop quiz. Now if only the Heat could get those other 28 failures expunged from their permanent record.
The way things have gone for the Heat, their make-up mini-game against Atlanta on March 8 -- they'll replay the end of their Dec. 19 loss, down 114-111 when a stats keeper's error disqualified Shaquille O'Neal, before playing the regularly scheduled contest that night -- simply will give them a shot at getting swept in a doubleheader. Counting their game the night before against Golden State, the Heat have a chance to lose three times in slightly more than 24 hours.
Why not? Anything seems possible -- or is that endurable? -- when you can walk out of Minneapolis' Target Center with more problems, and less spring in your step, than the Timberwolves.
That's the night last week when Miami, sans Shaq, sleepwalked through the first quarter and trailed by 19 in the second half of a 101-91 loss to the NBA's worst team. Sportswriters got serious mileage after that one from a courtside kid's misfortune, ascribing sarcastic symbolism when the young man in a Heat jersey vomited on the back of Miami TV announcer Tony Fiorentino. Yes, it really was that bad, with the always beatable Wolves fouling themselves into the bonus situation for most of the fourth quarter but Dwyane Wade, throttled back by his bum shoulder, unable to capitalize.
Vomit? Sad but true. Never mind the mystical bowl into which Riley threw all sorts of hocus-pocus and inspirational cards. These days, his team had better bring a bucket.
Afterward, the air was thick, in a "Wonder what Riley's going to say or do'' sort of way. It was the Heat's eighth consecutive loss, on their way to 10 in a row heading into a five-day schedule gap that ends Wednesday night against Chicago. And then the Miami coach came with this:
"We got off to real lethargic start, I thought. The game ended up the way it did. We didn't play hard enough, OK, from the beginning. And they came out real quick. ... We never adjusted to their first-quarter aggressiveness and quickness. Some nights that happens. ... This is a team right now, we keep trying to collect ourselves.''
Sheesh. Riley sounded a lot like Randy Wittman or P.J. Carlesimo, another sad-sack coach stuck with a sad-sack team. And facing the reality that a strong lottery finish, even with more than half the season remaining, would be preferable to another 20 or 25 victories that would get them nowhere.
"Sometimes, it's like having a nightmare and never waking up from it,'' Wade told reporters the other day. "It's like game after game, day after day, you can't believe that it's happening to you, but it is.''
Welcome to our world, where misery can linger, good intentions often go for naught, bodies age rather than ripen and you don't usually come back when you're down by 13 points to Dallas with six minutes left. O'Neal has been reminded of that this season, more mercilessly than ever, by a decline in his production, a commensurate drop in his play and, most recently, pain in his hips. The big man spent six days in L.A. seeking the opinions of specialists and has missed Miami's past eight games.
Wade's shoulder dislocation from last season, Riley admits, was more severe than most folks realized; the Heat shooting guard might not be his dynamic self again this season. Others have been hurt -- Alonzo Mourning's apparent final season ended in a heap in that Atlanta game in December, no do-over available -- while the chemistry has been sick. Let's just say that adding Ricky Davis and Mark Blount to any team has never been a formula for more success. And whatever beef guard Smush Parker got into with that parking valet pales next to the beef Miami fans have with the temporarily banished Parker over his shot selection.
Mathematically, all is not lost, even if it feels that way. Miami doesn't leave Florida for the next three weeks, with nine of 10 games at home and only a quickie visit to Orlando on Jan. 30. In all, 11 of its 15 games heading into the All-Star break will be at AmericanAirlines Arena. If the Heat, with Shaq due back Wednesday or Friday, went 12-3 in that stretch, they would be 20-31 with 31 to play. A 20-11 finishing kick would get them to 40-42, equal to Orlando's record last spring as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed. And then if Shaq and Wade get healthy ...
Right. That's a 32-14 mark over the final 46 for a team that has had its preferred starting lineup available only seven times, playing with no reservoirs of confidence or resiliency to tap. There still are rumors that Riley might flee the sideline before the end of February. With more than $34 million owed next season to O'Neal in decline and Wade in gauze bandages and another $36 million due them in 2009-10 (those numbers go to $50 million and $52 million if you count Blount's and Udonis Haslem's contracts), the hole Miami has dug for itself is too big, its goals too lofty beyond striving for a great vs. good draft pick.
If nothing else, Miami can finish out this season as the patron saints of false hope. Rather than thinking, "We beat a team that lost to the Timberwolves,'' opponents who topple the Heat -- can you really topple something puny? -- can feel good about themselves. "We're less than two years away from a championship,'' they can think after beating, and often beating up on, a team that is less than two years removed from its championship.
Maybe it's those 2006 Finals that should get a do-over.