Series against Pistons will put Riley's changes to test
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Pat Riley's experiment is about to be put to the test.
The Miami Heat president shook up his team after it fell just short of beating the Detroit Pistons last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Then Riley became coach of his new-look team after Stan Van Gundy resigned for family reasons.
If the Heat can get past the Pistons in this year's conference finals, which begin Tuesday in suburban Detroit, Riley's revamping of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade's surrounding cast will bedeemed a success.
If not, even Riley acknowledges the moves will have failed -- and says he might revise his roster again this offseason.
The Pistons, who had to rally from a 3-2 deficit and escaped Miami with a tight victory to advance to their second straight NBA Finals a year ago, raised their eyebrows when Riley changed much of his roster.
"I was surprised, especially with them being so close to making the Finals, not trying it out again, to see what would happen," Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said. "They made their adjustments to make sure they beat us."
Hours after signing O'Neal to a $100 million, five-year deal in August to keep him paired with Wade, Riley engineered the largest trade in NBA history.
A year after both Wade and O'Neal battled injuries in a grueling seven-game series, the Heat are healthy and rested this time after eliminating New Jersey last Tuesday.
"We always had an excuse about last year," Riley said. "We had guys hurt, we had too much time off ... And so there was always an excuse. There's none now."
While Riley was shaking up his roster, Joe Dumars was keeping his nucleus together.
The Pistons' president of basketball operations brought back his top seven players from last year -- when they almost repeated as NBA champions -- and added Dale Davis, Maurice Evans and Tony Delk, although those reserves saw little playing time.
One of the most resilient teams in sports was down again heading to Game 6 in the second round against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning a series after facing a 3-2 deficit for the fourth time in four postseasons.
"What we went through in the last series pretty much sums up the last three years for us," Richard Hamilton said.
O'Neal hopes he's not saying the same thing soon.
Detroit has eliminated O'Neal-led teams the past two years: Miami last year, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Just because the Pistons have found a way to eliminate O'Neal doesn't mean they know how to stop him during games. They just try to stifle his teammates.
O'Neal averaged 28 points in four games with Detroit this season, the most he managed against any team. But Miami won only one of the four games.
Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace, who will be the first of many Pistons to defend O'Neal, said he hasn't noticed much of a change in the 7-foot-1, 330-pound center.
"He still catch it on the block," Wallace said. "Still put his shoulder in your chest; put a couple of 'bows to your chops and dunk the basketball."
Even with O'Neal, the Pistons won't overlook Wade. Detroit will try to slow down the hard-driving guard with Tayshaun Prince, Hamilton and plenty of help defense -- a similar scheme to the one they used against James.
"They're different in a lot of ways, but they both attack," Hamilton said of Wade and James. "That means you have to attack him because you can't let him spend all of his energy on offense, and not on defense."
The Pistons rely on their balance when they have the ball, though they might lean on Billups more than usual.
While Payton tried to guard him in the finals two years ago, Billups averaged 21 points and was named NBA Finals MVP. Payton, agreat defender earlier in his career, now backs up Williams, who is not known for his defense.
"It depends on how the game is going," Billups said coyly when asked if he plans to be more aggressive on offense. "We'll see."
The basketball world will also see if Riley's many moves were wise, but O'Neal has already rendered his judgment.
"I think we're a little bit smarter," O'Neal said. "And some of our new guys are taking advantage of their opportunities."
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