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LAKERS: A DIFFERENT PICTURE FOR MIAMI HEAT STRUGGLING AFTER TITLE RUN.

Byline: ROSS SILER Staff Writer

MIAMI -- The day after the Miami Heat celebrated its firstchampionship with a parade down Biscayne Boulevard, Pat Riley arrived at work and decided that his first summer project would be a makeover for American Airlines Arena.

``I walked into the locker room,'' Riley said Sunday, ``and it was dismal and it was gray and it was old and I said, `This has got to change.'''

The transformation is obvious to anyone who walks through the arena's corridors. The players are greeted in their parking lot by scenes from the championship run and push through a door with an image of the Larry O'Brien Trophy on it.

They walk from the locker room to the court through an area dubbed ``Championship Alley,'' with a montage of photos from the NBA Finals and pass by a display with a signed basketball belonging to every player on that team.

``I never want them to ever forget about it,'' Riley said. ``I want them to see it. I want them to see the key plays and the key moments and then sort of reflect on what it took to get there.

``I mean, last year was a joyous experience at the end, but it was a harrowing ride, and sometimes you've got to go through that to be able to get that kind of result.''

It will be impossible for the Lakers to ignore this afternoon that they are playing in the home of the defending NBA champions, no matter that Miami will bring a 12-14 record into the league's annual Christmas game.

The Heat was humbled 108-66 by Chicago on opening night and lost Shaquille O'Neal to a knee injury soon after. O'Neal underwent surgery Nov.19 to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and is not expected back until January.

Although it is early, the Heat would not qualify for the playoffs if the season ended Sunday. The biggest goal of winning a second championship has been replaced by the modest hope of having a .500 record when O'Neal returns.

But the Heat never has to look far for a reminder about being champions until proven otherwise.

``You always think about that run,'' Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. ``We still wear the championship tag on us, we're still the champions. Every time we walk in the arena, every time we pull up in the garage, it's a reminder of the moments we had last year.

``I think that's what (Riley) wanted, he wanted us to remember that we're champions. Whether we're struggling or whether we're rolling, he always wanted us to remember ... nobody can take it away from us that we're champions.''

So Wade passes by one wall of photos taken in a champagne-soaked locker room to another with players and their families posing with the championship trophy to a third featuring scenes from the victory parade and rally outside the arena.

Even the hallway through which reporters are led to the practice court features a montage of Heat players talking to the media at the Finals.

All the Lakers saw as they practiced Sunday was the super-sized championship banner hanging at one end of the floor. The two teams will be playing for the third time on Christmas since the O'Neal trade in July 2004, the Heat having won the race to a title.

After losing in the first round to Phoenix in last year's playoffs, the Lakers watched as Miami rallied from 13 points down in the final 6:15 to win Game 3 of the Finals and avoid trailing Dallas three games to none.

It was as if the Heat came back from the dead. The next threegames all went to Miami, with Wade scoring 43 points to lead Miam to victory in overtime in Game 5, and then the Heat claimed the championship with a Game 6 victory at Dallas.

O'Neal scored just nine points in Game 6 and averaged 13.7points while making just 14of48 free throws in the Finals. Six months later, the Lakers are no closer to understanding how it all happened.

``I still am amazed that they won,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ``I told Pat that was a remarkable job to bring that team to the championship level. Dallas had them really looking cold in the water and they came back and won the day.''

Asked about watching the Heat win the title, Kobe Bryant said: ``I'm sure I felt pretty much the same as any other player in the league. It was a hell of a series to watch.''

The Lakers will bring the better record (18-9) into today's game, having built off last season's playoff run even while Bryant has recovered from knee surgery and Jackson has mended after having his right hip replaced on the eve of training camp.

``We're really focusing on the long haul here,'' Bryant said. ``I think it's going to be an exciting game for us, being that we're a young team, playing on Christmas Day. I'm more excited for the young fellows, stepping in there and seeing how they do.''

The Heat has won four of its last five at home, including a victory Saturday against Golden State, but suffered a 121-95 loss to Milwaukee only last week.

Even so, Wade knows that fortunes in the NBA can change in a matter of moments. It happened when he led the Heat back from the brink in Game 3 of the Finals and could just as easily happen again once O'Neal returns.

``We know just like last year that one instance can turn a season around and you can go on a streak,'' Wade said. ``You can go from wherever we are now, 12-14, to 22-14 if you get everything going right.

``We understand that and you've just got to continue to come in with a positive mindset. It might get frustrating at times but you've got to come back the next day and get ready to get better.''

Riley, meanwhile, was asked how far in the future the Heat could keep paying tribute to lastseason's championship team.

``It will always have a shelf-life because the infrastructure is in place,'' Riley said, later adding, ``All you have to do is strip down the pictures and put new ones up.''

ross.siler@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3610

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Photo:

Kobe Bryant, right, and the Lakers have the better record as they face the Heat and Dwyane Wade in today's game.

Victor Baldizon/Getty Images
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 25, 2006
Words:1084
Previous Article:UCLA FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK: UCLA'S SUCCESS WAS FAR FROM TAYLOR-MADE.
Next Article:LAKERS NOTEBOOK: WADE IS AMONG THOSE IN THE KOBE ADMIRATION SOCIETY.


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