MIAMI - On some level, Miami coach Pat Riley looks at the Boston Celtics as the mirror image of his Heat.
Well, the 2006 Heat, anyway.
Boston's brilliant offseason deals that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in to join Paul Pierce have sparked an early season revival. The Celtics are 7-0, the NBA's last unbeaten team, and are off to the franchise's best start in 35 years - while Miami has the Eastern Conference's worst record at 1-7.
The teams meet for the first time this season Friday night in Boston.
"They all of a sudden have something at stake now, which is their absolute legacy," Riley said of the Garnett-Allen-Pierce trio. "And now they're going to use each other, a little bit like we did two years ago. We used each other to establish something because we felt we had something at stake."
These days, Riley isn't so sure that's the case.
His team fell to 0-4 at home Wednesday night in a 104-95 loss to previously winless Seattle - spoiling the night where Dwyane Wade returned to the Miami lineup after six months of recovering from offseason knee and shoulder surgeries. After the game, Riley went on a passionate but surprisingly calm rant of sorts, basically challenging his team to return to the tenets of what worked during the '06 NBA title run.
He talked about the team's need for "personal respect and professional respect." He vowed major lineup shakeups - a thinly veiled nudge at a struggling Shaquille O'Neal, perhaps - were possible. He even talked about how he bleeds "blood red," so he had carpets in the locker room and surrounding areas changed to that hue and adopted the phrase as a motto of sorts.
"But I need a little help," Riley said. "Every day, you can't come in and give the speech that's going to change their thinking."
So Wade took it upon himself to try.
For the season's first seven games, he sat either on the sideline or before a television and tried to see what was going wrong. And in the second quarter Wednesday night, he asked Riley if he could run the team during a time-out.
Riley happily agreed.
"Everyone is not doing everything as a team on both ends of the floor," Wade said. "They've got to start doing that.... You know, we're a team, and we're going to go through ups and downs together. I'm not the captain, but I'm a leader of the team. And I'm going to continue to push guys every day."
Wade drew a parallel between this season and the 2003-04 campaign, his rookie year when Miami also got off to a 1-7 start.
That year, Riley retired just before the season and Stan Van Gundy took over a young team. This team expects to compete for an NBA title.
Big difference, yet somehow, same record after eight games.
"I think it does start with yourself," said forward and captain Udonis Haslem, another rookie on that '03-04 team. "Everybody has to look at the mirror before they point the finger at anybody else or say this isn't working or that isn't working. I'm my own worst critic. It's not about offense, who's getting shots, who's not getting shots.... It's about personal pride."
That's exactly what Riley wants someone to say.
With Wade back, there were flashes of good things. With him out, everyone within the Heat organization knew the early season would be a struggle.
But the Heat are already 5½ games behind Orlando's pace in the Southeast Division. Friday's game is the start of the first of 12 occurrences of two road games in consecutive nights for Miami this season, always a daunting proposition. Miami's offense has been the worst in the league so far, and O'Neal looks little like his future-Hall-of-Famer self - averaging 14.6 points through eight games.
Meanwhile, Garnett, Allen and Pierce are seeing everything go their way.
Riley can only remember what that feels like.
"All the three of them can see right now is paradise," Riley said. "That's what happens. And we have to feel the same way. I know we felt that when we were in the playoffs two years ago. We don't feel that now. That's an important quality to have."