IT'S HARD to believe that just a year-and-a-half ago, Dwyane Wade and the once-dominant Shaquille O'Neal led the Miami Heat to an NBA championship.
It's even harder to believe that the same team with six players remaining from that 2005-06 roster is resting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference at 8-21, having failed to beat a team in its conference since Nov. 27.
The Sixers made it look even worse last night in a 96-85 victory over the Heat in front of 18,431 at the Wachovia Center.
"It's tough to lose period, but it's even tougher to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference," a visibly frustrated Wade said after the game.
Even his 27-point, nine-assist performance wasn't enough to lead the Heat back from a 21-point, second-quarter deficit against a Sixers squad that shot 50 percent on the night.
Led by Andre Iguodala, who had a game-high 28 points to go with seven rebounds, the Sixers maintained their composure and locked up their 12th win of the year despite allowing the Heat to creep within three points with fewer than 5 minutes remaining.
"This was a game of spurts," Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said. "They were able to change the pace of the game when they wanted to, but luckily for us we were able to withhold it."
Miami was able to gain ground partly because the Sixers had 11 second-half turnovers. With 5:08 remaining and the Heat trailing, 84-81, Cheeks called a timeout and had his squad regroup. They finished the game on a 9-0 run, highlighted by a monstrous Louis Williams baseline dunk over Udonis Haslem as the shot clock expired.
"We've been in a couple games like that this year," said Cheeks. "I think with the experience of Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala, it helps us understand what we need to do to get it done down the stretch."
Miller got it done down the stretch with his leadership, but his 12 first-quarter points set the tone for the Sixers, whose biggest deficit came 5:19 into the game when they trailed, 9-5. They finished the quarter on a 20-8 run in which Miller and Iguodala accounted for 22 of the Sixers' 25 points.
"I think you have to pick and choose when you're going to put the ball in the basket," said Miller, who didn't score after the first quarter but finished with 12 assists and eight rebounds.
"Tonight, it was early on in the game where I could be aggressive, and toward the end was where it kind of opened up because they had to double the ball and other guys made plays."
Afterward, Cheeks had nothing but praise for the role his bench played in the victory - especially Calvin Booth and Louis Amundson, who helped hold O'Neal to just five points and 10 rebounds.
Booth, who played a season-high 21 minutes after Samuel Dalembert picked up two fouls in the first quarter, held his own in the paint against Shaq and the Heat frontcourt, tallying four blocks in the opening quarter. He finished with five blocks on the night to go along with six points and four rebounds.
Iguodala also was stellar defensively, guarding one of the league's best point guards in Wade.
"You have to understand a player like Wade is going to get it going at some point and the reason why they got back in the game was because he has that ability to get it going," Cheeks said. "I think Andre takes those challenges on. He's guarded big guards, four-men, two-guards . . . He takes those challenges on. When you're going to be the player that he is, you have to relish those situations."
Heat coach Pat Riley said the team was "out of sync." Haslem, who finished with six points and eight rebounds, said the Heat were "better than we're showing," but a little too frustrated.
When Wade was asked to ponder what's wrong with the Heat, he simply responded: "I wish I knew that. It would have been turned around by now. I don't have the answers."
Last night, the Sixers did.
The Sixers were without Willie Green, who suffered a left groin strain Saturday at Memphis. Green, who is listed as day-to-day, is expected to travel with the team today to Sacramento and hopes to return to the lineup in the middle of the Sixers' six-game West Coast trip that begins tomorrow night in Sacramento.
"Right now, I'm just resting it," said Green, the team's third-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game. "It's one of those things where you have to be cautious and careful before you try and rush back. [The trainers] say I should rest it, so that's who I'm listening to."