Future is now for Riley and Thomas

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Pat Riley and Isiah Thomas say they are doing what it takes to win games -- in the future. And if that means they have to lose games now, so be it.

With the injuries piling up as fast as the losses, the Heat and Knicks have had no choice but to turn to younger players down the stretch. That leads to the perception that they are tanking -- losing games on purpose to have a better chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick. Riley dismisses that conclusion.

"I think anybody that's been around this league long enough or covering this league long enough," Riley said, "after 60 or 70 games when people are absolutely out of the playoff hunt, you're trying to make your franchise better, and this is a process that you go through. You look at your young players, you don't try to lose games on purpose."

Miami has the worst record in the league, and Dwyane Wade , Shawn Marion , Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning are among their players who are sidelined while a group of NBA Development League alumni take the floor in Heat jerseys. Even Riley doesn't show up all the time anymore, skipping a few games to scout college players.

But he is quick to point out that Miami's injuries are legit, saying the Heat were given two exceptions from the league to sign additional players. Thomas can't necessarily make the same claim.

Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry are legitimately injured, but Quentin Richardson could probably play. And there was nothing wrong with another starter, Zach Randolph , when Thomas didn't even dress him for losses to Memphis and Minnesota -- teams the Knicks are competing with for positioning in the lottery.

UP AHEAD OUT WEST: While college basketball was getting from 65 teams down to four, the month of March did nothing to settle the Western Conference playoff picture.

Nine teams remain closely bunched in the race for eight spots, with only three games separating first place from sixth heading into the final weekend of the month. The New Orleans Hornets were leading the conference, but realize that's nothing to celebrate yet.

"It's more competitive than it has ever been," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said recently. "It makes all of us start the playoffs a little bit more quickly. None of us want to overplay our players to try to finish first, second or third. But at the same time, you don't want to be seventh, eighth or out of the playoffs if you can help it."

RUDY RULES: With five of the top eight picks being traded on the 2006 draft night, it was hard to tell who was happy with what they got.

The Memphis Grizzlies have to be satisfied with the way things played out.

The Grizzlies traded Shane Battier to Houston for Stromile Swift and the rights to the No. 8 pick, Rudy Gay , in a deal that became official a couple of weeks later. And while they may miss Battier's veteran leadership, Gay is showing the look of someone who could be a star.

His improvement in his second season shows he was worth taking earlier. After averaging 10.8 points as a rookie, Gay was scoring 19.8 per game through 70 games, tops among all second-year players. He is trying to join Pau Gasol and Shareef Abdur-Rahim as the only players in franchise history to average 20.

NO RUSH: Jermaine O'Neal knows he isn't an old man at 29, but he worries he was starting to play like one. That's why the Indiana Pacers star hasn't rushed back from the latest injury, a bone bruise of his left knee.

O'Neal hasn't played since Jan. 16, missing his 32nd game in a row Wednesday in the Pacers' loss at New Jersey. That was a potentially costly one, because the Nets are one of the teams Indiana is chasing for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

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