2006-07: Injury Bug Bites Defending Champs
After enjoying the thrill of winning its first NBA championship, the HEAT had very little time for celebration. The first challenge of the off-season was to bring back the same team that captured Miami’s first NBA title, and HEAT President and Head Coach Pat Riley wasted very little time. On July 12, Riley made the first step of defending the title by extending NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade’s contract through the 2010-11 season. On August 18, the HEAT re-signed the heart, soul and cornerstone of the franchise, Alonzo Mourning, who had been considering retirement. Five days later, Riley ended speculation about his future when he announced he would return to coach the HEAT for the 2006-07 season. He wrapped up the off-season on September 6 when he re-signed nine-time All-Star Gary Payton.
With Shaquille O’Neal and Wade once again leading the way, Riley back on the bench and the core nucleus of the championship team intact, the HEAT was now prepared to defend its title.
On October 31, NBA Opening Night, the HEAT relived the championship feeling when the players, coaches and front office received their championship rings and the championship banner was raised to the rafters.
Miami entered the season with a rash of injuries. Starting point guard Jason Williams missed the first seven games after off-season knee surgery, and on November 12, the HEAT took a tremendous hit when O’Neal went down with a flap tear in the articular cartilage of his left knee, causing him to miss the next 39 games. The HEAT was 3-3 before O’Neal’s injury but stayed in contention by the stellar play of Wade and the emergence of Jason Kapono, the 2007 Footlocker 3-Point Shootout Champion and NBA three-point percentage leader. On January 3, Miami suffered another loss when Riley announced he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence to undergo and recover from hip and knee surgery. To fill his role, Riley named Assistant Coach Ron Rothstein Acting Head Coach.
Rothstein, who served as the HEAT first head coach from 1988-91, went 13-9 during his stint as acting head coach and got a big lift from the return of O’Neal.
O’Neal returned to the line-up on February 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and helped the HEAT win six of its next seven games heading into the All-Star break. Miami entered the All-Star break at the .500 mark, with a 26-26 record.
With Riley returning from surgery and a healthy roster for the first time all season, the HEAT seemed to be gaining momentum in the Eastern Conference heading into the second half of the season. However, the injury bug would strike again. On February 21, the first game back from All-Star break, Wade suffered a dislocated shoulder at Houston. He would miss the next 23 games before returning with six games left in the regular season. But O’Neal would pick up where Wade left off, helping the HEAT record a season-high nine-game winning streak and later helped Miami overtake Washington to win its third-straight Southeast Division crown.
The nine-game winning streak also helped Riley earn Coach of the Month honors as he led the HEAT to a 11-4 record during the month of March, with wins over the Pistons, Bulls, Wizards and Jazz – all playoff teams – despite not having the services of Wade or Kapono, who suffered a high-ankle sprain on March 5 against the Hawks.
The HEAT also got help from a very familiar face. Eddie Jones, the long-time HEAT veteran, was signed as a free agent on February 1 and helped to pick up some of the scoring slack.
Miami clinched a playoff spot on April 5 versus Cleveland and locked up the division and the No. 4 seed in the playoffs a week later.
In the First Round, Miami played a young Chicago Bulls team in a rematch of the 2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. With the Bulls off-season addition of four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Wallace, and a battered Wade, the HEAT succumbed to the Bulls in four straight games.