CHICAGO--His defending NBA championship team was a mess. His star center was out of the lineup and some doubted it would even make the playoffs amid such turmoil.
Rudy Tomjanovich can really relate. His 1994 champion Houston Rockets defended their title in 1995 in disarray, making a major trade and trying to overcome lengthy absences by starters Hakeem Olajuwon and Robert Horry, both of whom played little with midseason acquisition Clyde Drexler before the playoffs.
But Olajuwon and Horry came back and got healthy for one of the most remarkable playoff runs in history. The Rockets repeated as champions and broke the hearts of teams that had been vastly superior during the regular season.
Houston began the playoffs as the sixth seed, but beat a 60-win Utah Jazz team in the first round and a 59-win, division-champion Phoenix Suns team in the second. The Rockets would go on to upset the 62-win San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, one of the great series in playoff history, as Olajuwon outplayed league Most Valuable Player David Robinson.
So Riley won't lose hope. The Heat still could be the nightmare awaiting some really good Eastern Conference team, like the Bulls or Detroit Pistons, who could earn one of the top seeds in the conference and get a first-round matchup against the defending champions with O'Neal back and rested.
"It was a worrisome situation with Hakeem, because everything went through him," Tomjanovich said. "We had a feeling as a coaching staff we could be better, but we had nothing to show for it. I remember I kept saying we'd be better and we weren't winning, and everyone was thinking I was nuts.
"But being injured helped Hakeem have energy. He had a break, like Shaq. Once you get there and get in the swing, you don't have the wear and tear of going through a whole season."
Tomjanovich is now scouting for the Los Angeles Lakers after stepping down as their coach for health reasons. He issued one of the more famous quotes of that or any season during those '95 playoffs.
"It was where the comment about never underestimating the heart of a champion came from," Tomjanovich said. "People were doubting us, saying we had lost it. It was a response to that lack of confidence, disrespecting who we were. We had heard that the guys couldn't handle success, that they'd gotten bad and couldn't get it back.
"It all comes down to how you look at it. Maybe Shaq comes back stronger. You don't go through all that stuff to get there and not have something. The guys knew they won before, and we had veterans."
But the Rockets never fell quite as far as the Heat has this season.
Miami ranks among the poorest offensive and defensive teams in the league and, despite yesterday's victory over the Lakers, has looked slow, old and injured. The Heat has lost six games by at least 20 points, including four at home. And Riley doesn't think many of his players seem upset.
They're near the bottom in steals and assists on their old legs. They don't shoot the ball well, and the amazing Dwyane Wade is being worn down at the rate of 40 minutes per game.
You figured Riley saw this coming, Shaq working his way up to the playoffs. But after knee surgery a month ago, what shape will O'Neal be in when he returns? He says he won't be back until he's "1,000 percent," so maybe February.
But what could Riley do? Whom did he have as a replacement if he had wanted to quit last June on top? So he's alternately condemning his offense and defense as each game dictates. Antoine Walker can't shoot and Jason Williams and Gary Payton can barely move. Youngsters like Dorell Wright end up starting games. Alonzo Mourning gives all he has, but cannot last long.
But O'Neal will return, and in Wade they have the best big-game player in the conference. They'd likely open the playoffs on the road with lowered expectations and possibly the home team being talked about as a potential champion, with all the pressure that entails. That scenario is one the best teams in the East are already dreading.
"We all look forward to the day we're all playing together," Wade said. "That will be exciting. We all dream of that."
Sam Smith writes for the Chicago Tribune.