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Shaq, Riley back atop the NBA heap

Once the South Beach parties had all dwindled and Pat Riley committed to coming back, the dapper Miami coach got to work on his plan for keeping the Heat atop the NBA.

When Riley surveyed his roster, there was Shaquille O'Neal, who looked every one of his 34 years while laboring for a pedestrian 13.7 points per game in the NBA finals. In key reserve roles, he saw 38-year-old Gary Payton and 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning.

And Riley decided, despite his aging stars, to do practically nothing.

So back come the same old Miami Heat, who are convinced they're still good enough to get by LeBron and Big Ben in the East, and then the Mavericks, Spurs, Suns or whomever else survives in the West.

Sure, the Heat have flaws. But they're also the only team with Dwyane Wade, a bona fide superstar who's already proven he's capable of hiding or overcoming his team's shortcomings all by himself.

"However the prognosticators out there are evaluating our team based on what happened last year," Riley said recently, "I would not want to be a team on the other side of us in a seven-game series, because this is a rise-to-the-occasion type of team.

"It might not be an everyday occasion type of team, but there's something about them, when it's the right time, and it gets hot and it gets real competitive, that they're formidable. I think they showed that."

So when the NBA's new microfiber composite Spalding ball &

no, it's not leather anymore &

gets tossed up on Halloween night in Miami to open the NBA season against the Bulls, you can bet O'Neal will want to tip it to Wade. As long as it's in his hands, the Heat might still be the best in an NBA that lacks a dominant team.

"That guy is pretty good. I mean really, really, really good," Hornets assistant Darrell Walker said. "He's getting to the point, and I'm telling you I love MJ, but we're going to have start putting the Jordan rules on him. He's a pretty special player."

There are plenty of those.

Kobe Bryant beat out Allen Iverson and LeBron James to win a thrilling scoring race last season, while Steve Nash won a second straight MVP award as recent rules changes allowed offensive stars to shine.

Wade stands out as the brightest of all after what he did in the finals, turning the Heat's 2-0 deficit against Dallas into a six-game victory in a Flash &

Shaq's nickname for him &

and earning that highest of NBA compliments: comparisons to Jordan.

So for all those teams hoping to pounce on what they see as a vulnerable champion, take heed:

"He's going to only get better," Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks said. "I don't know him, but he looks like a guy that loves to play, loves to make his teammates better. To think that a guy won a championship in his third year and is only going to get better is a scary thought.

"Everyone said he couldn't shoot a jump shot. Well, he got better at shooting a jump shot, kind of like when people said Michael Jordan couldn't shoot a jump shot, and then he made his jump shot even deeper into a 3-pointer."

Don't call the Heat world champs, by the way. The only team that gets that title is Spain, which earned it by rolling through the world championships in Japan this summer.

The United States, even with Wade, James and Carmelo Anthony, finished third. Then two NBA teams lost to international clubs in exhibition games in Europe. So if you're looking for an up-and-coming team, consider Toronto, in the NBA's only non-U.S. city, where No. — overall pick Andrea Bargnani from Italy is among a handful of foreign players on the roster.

Not that the Raptors claim to notice their own continental flair.

"We don't talk about those things. We're the Toronto Raptors, Canada's team ... we are an NBA team," coach Sam Mitchell said. "And all our guys are proven players, and like all players, have a lot to prove once they get to the NBA. But basketball players are basketball players. As a coaching staff, we never walk out there and say, 'We have two guys from Spain, a guy from Italy, Rasho Nesterovic from (Slovenia).' We just don't ... it's not that big of a deal to us, it's really not."

The Raptors aren't the only team with a different look. Chicago signed Ben Wallace away from Detroit, possibly altering the balance of power in the Central Division and becoming Miami's biggest threat in the Eastern Conference.

Don Nelson is back on the sideline in Golden State, and former Warriors coach Eric Musselman is in Sacramento. Across the country, Isiah Thomas replaced Larry Brown and is now coaching the Knicks team he assembled &

though maybe not for long.

He's already been warned that he has one season to show "evident progress" with the high-priced mess he's created, or he'll be gone, too. He might be able to pull it off in the East, where there are no more than a half-dozen strong teams.

The West, on the other hand, remains a killer.

Los Angeles might have two playoff teams again &

and for the second straight season, the Clippers might be the higher-seeded one.

It took 44 wins to make the playoffs there last season, and the conference figures to be even tougher now with the improvements made by teams such as Houston, where Bonzi Wells joins a healthy Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, and New Orleans.

The Rockets and Hornets are both in the Southwest Division, where San Antonio and Dallas each won 60 or more games last season but were forced to meet in the second round, ushering in a rules change: A division title no longer guarantees a team a top-three seed if the fourth-place team has a better record.

"We've got the best division in the NBA, I don't care what people say," Spurs guard Tony Parker said.

"Our division is tough."

The Mavericks beat the Spurs &

one of three second-round series that went seven games &

as part of a thrilling postseason. The preseason, on the other hand, hasn't been nearly as fun for the NBA.

O'Neal was one of most critical players of the league's new ball, which some say is too sticky when dry; others complain it's too slippery when wet.

And speaking of complaints, players had better not protest if a call goes against them. Commissioner David Stern is fed up with too much of that, and referees are prepared to hit players or coaches with a technical foul for a dirty word &

or, some fear, even a dirty look.

Coaches don't mind the new policy, as long as it's not applied at the wrong time.

"I hope it doesn't affect the outcome of games, especially down the stretch in fourth quarters or overtimes, whatever it may be, or playoff basketball," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "The end of games, I hope there will be some judgments."

The Mavs did plenty of griping in the finals, convinced Wade was getting the benefit of too many calls &

that drew some Jordan comparisons, too.

And here's one more Wade would like to live up to: Once Jordan finally won a title, he won again the next season.

Wade's ready to get working on that one, ready to prove Riley's right that he already has all the tools he needs.

"We're coming off a championship and we can be better this season," Wade said. "Not just in the beginning, but all the way through because of the continuity that we have already."