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Heat ready to get rings, open defense of NBA title



MIAMI (AP) -- Dwyane Wade will have goosebumps Tuesday night.


He'll watch the retrospective video highlighting moments from the Miami Heat's postseason run to an NBA title, then get his glimmering new championship ring and see the commemorative banner finally sway from the arena's rafters.


Then, according to the time schedule set for the pregame festivities, Wade will have exactly five minutes to get ready what he considers the night's primary event -- facing the Chicago Bulls in the first of 82 regular-season games where the Heat will start defending that championship.


"It's going to be sweet and kind of a little bittersweet also," Wade said. "I think you should have these kind of ceremonies when you have nothing else to do. But when you've got to get prepared for a game, it kind of takes away from the moment. It'll be great, but right away, we're going to have to snap out of it."


Players -- who'll wear the same red uniforms they wore the night they won the title in Dallas -- haven't seen the finished rings yet, and most know very little about what they'll look like.


Heat coach Pat Riley, who'll be collecting his seventh piece of championship jewelry -- his fifth as a head coach -- was involved in the design, so he knows what's coming. And he offered only a few hints Monday.


"It's a big ring," Riley said. "Big, but very elegant."


Like Wade, Riley said he wishes the pomp and circumstance of championship-celebration night didn't interfere with a game; given his preference, he would have gladly accepted the rings in Dallas on the night Miami won the NBA title and moved on.


So, too, would Shaquille O'Neal, who'll do the same thing with this ring as he did with his first three -- send it to his stepfather, Phil Harrison.


"It's an exciting night for the players, an exciting night for the fans and something that we accomplished last season," O'Neal said. "It's also the beginning of a new season, so hopefully ... we just have to remain in a celebratory state for a few minutes. And then we have to get to work."


Not every Heat player, though, sees the pregame revelry as a distraction.


For some, like Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning and Antoine Walker -- who played a combined four decades before any got their first championship -- those precious few minutes Tuesday night have been a long time coming.


"This championship moment is going to last forever in here, you know," Mourning said, tapping his chest. "Nobody can take that away. No moment, nothing can take that away from me, because I know I worked hard for it and I went through a whole lot to accomplish that goal."


There is a certain symmetry with Miami playing Chicago on opening night, especially since the Bulls gave the Heat a major challenge in the opening round of last season's playoffs.


With the series tied at two games apiece, Wade got hurt in the first half of Game 5, and the Bulls seemed poised to take control of the series when they built a five-point lead midway through the third period. But Wade returned, sparked an immediate turnaround, the Heat went on to beat the Bulls in six games and then got past New Jersey, Detroit and Dallas to claim the title.


O'Neal knows the Heat aren't a popular pick to successfully defend the crown, and bristles at the perception -- which he believes is widespread around the league -- that Miami wasn't a worthy champion last season.


"I dare any one of those guys to say that to my face," O'Neal said.


Chicago enters the season as part of a horde of Eastern Conference clubs who believe they can challenge Miami.


The Bulls kept most of their core from last season intact, plus made a huge acquisition when they signed center Ben Wallace away from the Detroit Pistons.


"We were close with Miami," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "It was 61-61 going into the fourth quarter of Game 5 and then we just went dry. Dallas also had them down, but you have to tip your hat to the world champs. Just because we were close, we know we still have a long way to go."





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