MIAMI — Although the Miami Heat are led by LeBron James on the court, Pat Riley continues to rule over the organization.
Often a spectator at practices, Riley watches home games directly across and a few rows up from the Heat bench he ran for 11 years before stepping away in 2008.
"Look at me, man. I am full of vitality to have some fun," Riley said Sunday afternoon while standing next to wife Chris at the team’s Family Festival charity event. "Six years ago, when I was coaching, I was waking up at 5 a.m., it was dark and I was depressed.
"Not anymore. What with LeBron, and Dwyane (Wade) and Chris (Bosh) and our team. They are so fun to watch. They’re on a mission. I hope we can deliver what we want so badly again this year for our fans."
The Heat (42-14) were two games behind the Indiana Pacers in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top spot and winners of seven straight, 10 of 11. Clearly, Miami seems to be rounding into form for the stretch run.
Riley, however, cautioned there’s still a lot of time left in the regular season.
"Before everybody gets excited, we got another 24 or 25 games," he said. "We’re playing very well right now but every day you keep ratcheting up what you need to do to get ready for what you know is going to be an incredibly competitive playoff. Right now, you have to keep in mind we have a long way to go.
"Everybody thinks it’s right around the corner? No — a lot of stuff can happen. We’re in home-court-advantage races, not only in the West but in the East. That’s not an objective. The objective, I think according to Coach Spo, is that (we) stay on track with the defense and the rebounding and I think we’ll be OK."
Although he credited Erik Spoelstra and the coaching staff with guiding the Heat so far this season, Riley knew as well as anybody the team’s chances of earning a three-peat will rely on the Big Three. First and foremost, on James.
"The fact that he’s a confident player right now, probably the most confident player in the NBA, and it’s not born out of arrogance or born out of anything else other than the main thing — which is winning," Riley said. "He wants to win. That’s all it’s about.
"All the other staff that’s flying around like butterflies, they’re just things. And he deals with it as well as anybody. So I’m so proud of him and Chris and Dwyane and the fact they’re able to subjugate, really subjugate their games, and look what it’s brought them. And I think it can only get better. That’s what I think."
Perhaps that will be Riley’s pitch to the Big Three if one or more opt out of their contracts following the season. The Hall of Fame coach knows how much winning means to each of them, especially James.
"I can only imagine what it would have felt like for seven straight years of not winning for a player that’s so competitive and every year he goes into the lock room after that last game knowing he’s not a champion or he doesn’t have a chance to play for it," Riley said.
"The fact he’s played for it now for the last three years and he’s won two of them … he’s four-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP … he is confident. He is a confident, confident player and when you do win it, and you know how to win it and how to play with your teammates and he them win it, you’re feeling good about yourself."
Another key factor for the Heat will be the health of Wade, who has played extremely well recently, He has averaged 23.5 points and shot 62 percent in the past four games.
"Dwyane is an 11-year veteran and he knows his way around the block," Riley said. "He knows what he as to do to get himself ready. Again, I go back 11 years with him, and I’ve seen him from the beginning to where he is today. He’s a smarter, more efficient in using his energy.
"I read a stat today that he and LeBron are the highest field-goal percentage guys in the backcourts or perimeter players. They’re just efficient players."
Always looking to get better, Riley and the Heat reached out to several players recently, including former Miami swingman Caron Butler, who signed with Oklahoma City.
"I think when you look at our roster, in our conversations with them, they wanted a meaningful role and I don’t blame them," Riley said. "We’re pretty deep. When you’ve got James Jones and Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis in this positions where they’re waiting, and Mike (Beasley) and Greg (Oden) right now are getting minutes from (the) 9-10 (spots on the bench), they’re looking for something else.
"We love Caron. We reached out to him but he was very definitive with what he wanted and I don’t think it’s something we could have promised."
Riley admitted he roots for Oden "more than I’ve ever rooted for anybody" in seeing the 7-foot center return from chronic knee injuries that caused him to miss nearly four years.
"I’m just happy for him. I can’t imagine what a player would go through when you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft and all of a sudden you’re sitting out for three and a half years," Riley said.
"(Saturday) night (against Orlando) he played big, which is what we need. We need that from him."
While crediting the Heat training staff with bringing along Oden, Riley added he has a feeling likely shared by most Heat fans.
"He’s gone through a lot and I just cross my fingers, and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better then we’re going to be better. That’s why we brought him in."