South Beach Showtime
The makeup of the Miami Heat's key pieces evoke memories of the L.A. Lakers of old
You can’t blame Pat Riley if his Heat making the NBA Finals caused him to feel a little déjà vu.
A 37-year-old Riley coached a 23-year-old star guard and a 35-year-old veteran center to The Finals in 1982.
It’s 2006, and while Riles might have a little bit of gray adorning his slicked-back coif, he once again has a 24-year-old star guard and 34-year-old veteran center on a team of his that is playing for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The coach is hoping that Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal can lift the Miami Heat over the Dallas Mavericks the same way that Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar carried his Los Angeles Lakers back in the day.
“There's a bond there, there's no doubt,” Riley said of Wade and O’Neal. “I think there's just so much respect there for each other, and it also works on the court.”
Like Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, O’Neal and Wade harbor respect for Riley, the same intense X’s-and-O’s guy he was back when Ronald Reagan was in office, but Flash and Shaq are hardly carbon copies of Magic and Kareem.
By 1982, his third season in the league, Earvin “Magic” Johnson already had a collegiate national championship and an NBA championship under his belt. At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, he was a point guard the size of a power forward and the toast of the league, having downed the Philadelphia 76ers in the ’80 Finals and garnered the series MVP in the process.
He did not win Rookie of the Year -- that trophy rests in Larry Bird’s possession -- but his ability to play all five positions on the court led to rings in back-to-back years as a member of Michigan State and the Lakers.
Wade, a 6-foot-4, 212-pound combo-guard, finished his third NBA campaign sixth in MVP voting. Where Magic had size, Dwyane has quickness. His baseline-to-baseline abilities led his Marquette team to the Final Four and his Miami squad to three straight playoff appearances.
During Marquette’s tournament run, Wade dropped a triple-double on Kentucky in the Elite Eight, joining Johnson as one of only four players to ever record a triple-dip in the NCAA tourney (the others were Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson and Utah’s Andre Miller).
He has not tasted success quite as fast as Johnson, however. While Johnson and Bird were the featured gems of their ‘79 rookie class, Wade was initially overshadowed by fellow ’03 picks LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
It was James that went No. 1 overall and won the Rookie of the Year, and it was Anthony’s Syracuse Orange that won the NCAA title by taking out the Kansas squad that bested Wade and Marquette in the Final Four
But just as Johnson won on the biggest stages, putting him slightly ahead of Bird in the race for bragging rights in the neophyte stages of their careers, Wade has outperformed James and Anthony in the playoffs thus far.
While James did not make the playoffs until this season, and Anthony’s Nuggets have gone 3-12 in the three playoff series he has played in, Wade's is a different story. As a rookie, he helped lead Miami to its first playoff series win in four years. Last year, he reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and was arguably a rib injury away from beating the Pistons. And now he sits just four victories away from his first NBA championship.
Three years into each of their pro tenures, Johnson and Wade shared the same responsibility on their teams -- Be a playmaker. And lucky for both of them, they had a dominant, seasoned man in the middle making it a pleasure to go to work every day.
The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that played with Magic in ’82 and the Shaquille O’Neal that plays with Dwyane in ’06 are comparable in the fact that both players were enjoying the latter stages of brilliant, shining careers.
Abdul-Jabbar was in his 13th season when the 1982 Finals tipped off. His accolades -- Rookie of the Year, two-time scoring champion, two-time NBA champion with one Finals MVP and six league MVPs -- were staggering.
O’Neal is in his 14th season and he too was ROY and a two-time scoring champ, but he differs from Abdul-Jabbar slightly: Shaq is a three-time NBA champion with three Finals MVPs and one league MVP.
At 7-foot-2, 267 pounds, Abdul-Jabbar seemed to be all appendages, his lengthy arms and legs sprouting from his jersey like tree branches. His patented move on offense, the “skyhook,” relied on agility and grace.
Shaq, meanwhile, with his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame, is all tree trunks. He uses his meaty arms and powerful legs to help him execute his go-to move on offense, a move that doesn’t have a melodic nickname that can be placed in quotation marks. O’Neal’s bread-and-butter is a back-you-down, put-the-leather-in-the-iron-with-ferocity exercise every time down the court (although he has had to tone down the physical play in recent years to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court).
No matter the method, the results for Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal were the same. They were truly elite members of the game whose production was matched only by their consistency.
But, like an aging Abdul-Jabbar needed Johnson to get back to the highest level and often deferred to his pupil’s rapid development as a marquee player, O’Neal needs Wade to reach his goal of winning another championship.
Comparing his current crew with his tandem of old, Riley said: “I mean, Magic and Kareem I think is equal, but I also had (James) Worthy and (Byron Scott) and (Michael) Cooper and (Bob) McAdoo. You talk about a great team, but I think that they're similar. So I've been very fortunate.
“I wouldn't say that one (duo) is better than the other. I love those guys in L.A. I want them to talk to me when I get old. These guys (in Miami) will always talk to me because I'm paying them (laughter).”
This is Riley’s ninth trip to The Finals -- seven with the Lakers, one with the Knicks and now one with the Heat. He has four championships as a head coach thus far, and if he is to earn his fifth by beating the Mavericks, he will need Wade and O’Neal to accomplish what Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar did back in 1982.
And, if they do, it will be déjà vu all over again.
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