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HEAT Look to Build on Breakthrough Season

MIAMI, June 20 - This is not finished yet. Not by a longshot.

The Miami HEAT came within seven minutes of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 17 seasons this June, drawing a record number of fans and playing a beautiful brand of basketball that sent scoreboards spinning and opponents reeling.

So after winning an Eastern Conference-best 59 games, running away with the Southeast Division title and averaging a franchise-record 101.5 points behind the dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, anything less than a Finals appearance can be construed as a failure by some ? even by those who put their autograph on this strong season.

"We almost got it done, but almost isn’t good enough," said O’Neal in the wake of an 88-82 loss to the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. "Next year we've got to start over. We've got to do a little more next year.”

But when one considers that this team was assembled on the eve of the season and the HEAT had to struggle through an array of injuries throughout the regular season and the playoffs, a more realistic perception begins to emerge:

The HEAT is capable of much bigger things next season. And O’Neal is more than capable of delivering on his promise of bringing a World Championship to his adopted home of Miami.

The momentum is just getting started.

"It just hasn't been done where you put a core together and you win it in the first year," said coach Stan Van Gundy, who has amassed a 101-63 regular-season record and 17-11 playoff mark in two seasons at the HEAT’s helm. “You have to learn from [the loss] and grow from it and make this, even out of the disappointment, make you stronger and better and make it a step toward the next thing.”

Wade, who blossomed into a spectacular scoring threat and a NBA All-Star in just his second year in the NBA, sounded like he’s already learned his lesson.

"I'm just excited," said Wade, who averaged 24.1 points and 6.8 assists in the regular season and 27.4 points and 6.6 assists in the playoffs. "Even though this season didn't end the way we wanted it to end, we can't control destiny. We can't control what happened any more. And it was great.”

What the HEAT accomplished in the 2004-2005 season was indeed great. Upon acquiring the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O’Neal through a trade in the offseason, the HEAT became a dominant, entertaining entity both on and off the court.

Led by O’Neal’s NBA-best 60.1-percent shooting, Miami set a franchise record and led the league by shooting a collective 48.6 percent from the field. A refueled and retooled Diesel averaged 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.34 blocks, joining Wade on the East All-Star team and finishing as the runner-up to Phoenix guard Steve Nash in league MVP voting.

After a surprisingly lackluster 27-10 start, O’Neal led the HEAT on a 13-4 surge, leading Miami in scoring in 10 of those games and eclipsing 30 points three times.

But O’Neal’s effect on the HEAT extended far beyond numbers. The 13-year veteran’s commanding, confident, charismatic presence established the HEAT as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference and opened the floor (and a world of opportunities) for his supporting cast.

Wade made a seemingly flawless and increasingly breathtaking transition from point guard to shooting guard, taking advantage of improved spacing to attack the rim with his unique brand of artistic aggression. Wade seemed to improve by the game, scoring 20 points or more nine times during a 14-game winning streak to close out 2004 and leading the HEAT in scoring eight times during a 12-game unbeaten run a few months later. The player nicknamed “Flash” by O’Neal also set a franchise record by sinking 581 free throws and proved his durability by starting all but five games.

Veteran point guard Damon Jones, a free-agent signing prior to the season, established another HEAT record, canning 225 3-point field goals. Jones also provided a steady hand at the controls, finishing fourth in the NBA with a 3.57 assists-to-turnover ratio.

Miami native and former University of Florida star Udonis Haslem followed up a strong rookie season with a breakthrough second year, averaging 10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds in the regular season and 9.2 points and a team-high 10.0 rebounds in the playoffs. The ultra-aggressive and hard-nosed power forward started 80 regular-season and 15 playoff games, and finished fourth in the NBA with a 54.0-percent mark from the field during the regular season.

Fellow South Florida native Eddie Jones successfully undertook a new role, averaging 12.7 points and a career-high 5.1 rebounds while playing suffocating defense in a successful transition from shooting guard to small forward. Jones also canned 142 3-pointers, becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in long-distance daggers during his fifth season with the club.

The HEAT also saw the triumphant return of center Alonzo Mourning, who averaged 5.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.74 blocks during the regular season and 6.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in the playoffs in a brutally efficient reserve role. The passionate 35-year-old has hinted strongly at returning for a ninth season with the HEAT next year.

If Mourning does return, he’s likely to have O’Neal at his side.

”I plan on being here next year,” said O’Neal after scoring a game-high 27 points and pulling down 9 rebounds in the HEAT’s final playoff game. “I plan on ending my career here. Next year we've got to start from square one and build and build and build and try to get it done."

Wade shares O’Neal’s focus and ferocity. And he knows that he’ll always look back at this special season with fondness.

"You'll love these guys forever because of what we shared," Wade said. "And hopefully, there's great things to come for everybody who was on our team this season."

All indications suggest as much.