Eager to begin his latest coaching comeback, Pat Riley arrived for work Monday at 8 a.m. and was surprised to find the Miami Heat offices deserted. "I didn't realize it was President's Day," he said.
Ah, the old tunnel vision is still there, and Riley hopes to use it to lead a second-half surge by the NBA's defending champions.
He was back on the practice court Monday evening, nearly seven weeks after he stepped down for operations to replace his left hip and repair cartilage in his right knee. Riley led the Heat through a two-hour workout, their first since the All-Star break.
"It was good to have him back," center Alonzo Mourning said. "It was basically like he hadn't left at all."
For some Heat players, a Riley return is familiar. He quit four days before the 2003-04 season, when Miami was coming off a dismal 25-win season, and returned in December 2005 to lead the franchise to its first league title.
He stepped down again Jan. 3, and now acknowledges the decision wasn't all about his health. At the time, Miami was 13-17.
"I was not responding very well to the situation," Riley said. "I was very intolerant of just about anything. I don't think I was doing a credible job at all as a coach. ...
"I have a tendency to get very intimidating and mean and bullying, and I don't want to do that. That's what drove me out of the game the first time. I've got to get back to coaching and communicating, and not just yelling and screaming at people."
Riley returns with his team at .500 and on the rise. With Shaquille O'Neal healthy and Dwyane Wade in top form, the Heat have won seven of their last eight games to reach 26-26, their best record since they were 3-3.
Despite a rash of health issues, including a knee injury that sidelined O'Neal for much of the season's first half, the Heat trail Southeast Division leader Washington by only four games. They'll open the second half Wednesday in Houston, followed by an NBA finals rematch the next night at Dallas.
"There's something about this team, in spite of how we blew the start of the season," Riley said. "That stuff is behind us. I just hope we can keep building on what we have, and defend the championship with a lot more energy than we had.
"It's almost like a team that was built for the playoffs. It's not built for the regular season. That looks like what we have, which isn't a bad thing to have, to be honest with you _ if you can make it alive through the regular season."
Riley's health is better, but the 61-year-old walked stiffly after practice and joked about the danger of being run over on a fast break.
"I'm still a couple of weeks away from taking any hits," he said. "I let the players know just before the first drill that if I get caught in the middle of the court when they're running up and down the court to make sure they dodge me, unless there's a bounty on my head and somebody is going to take me out.
"They all sort of smiled at that."
Gone was the scruffy gray beard that Riley wore last week when he announced his return.
"My daughter told me there was a survey on the Internet that said I'd better shave it off," Riley said. "I think they said I looked too old."
The practice reunited Riley, Wade and O'Neal for the first time since mid-November. Wade smiled as he noted the coach, notorious for his grueling workouts, kept the team on the court until 7 p.m.
"A good Riley practice today _ what time is it?" Wade said.
Guard Jason Williams took part. He has missed the past eight games with a torn abdominal muscle and may return for the Houston game.
The Heat appear unlikely to add Scottie Pippen, however. The former All-Star forward said last week he wants to come out of retirement at age 41 and play in a warm-weather city.
"We've got a lot of perimeter guys," Riley said. "We're overloaded in that position right now. We'll always keep our ars open, but I can't see much happening."
© 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.