Marty Burns
Friday February 23rd, 2007

Shaquille O'Neal provided one of the memorable moments at last weekend's All-Star festivities when the 7-foot-1 behemoth boogied with Gilbert Arenas and Dwight Howard during practice, even hitting the floor to show off his break-dancing skills.

Now the self-proclaimed Most Dominant Ever is going to have to prove he still has some fancy basketball moves left in that gigantic body as well.

With Heat guard Dwyane Wade expected to miss six weeks -- if not longer -- with a dislocated shoulder, Shaq has once again reemerged as perhaps the central figure in the NBA. After all, it's basically up to him now whether the Heat can survive and defend their title.

"Everyone just has to step up," O'Neal said after Miami's loss Thursday night at Dallas. "Now I'm probably going to have to take [more] shots and begin getting the ball all the time. They're going to have to double. I'm known for kicking the ball out. Guys like Antoine [Walker], [James] Posey, [Jason] Kapono are just going to have to step up."

While it's true the Heat will need their role players to keep alive their playoff hopes, make no mistake about it: It's Shaq Time on South Beach.

But can Shaq still do it?

Coming off a knee injury that kept him out most of the season, and nearing his 35th birthday, O'Neal has not looked much like his old All-Star self. In his first nine games after returning to the lineup Jan. 21, he averaged just 13.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in roughly 20 minutes. Not bad, but hardly vintage Shaq either.

Even coach Pat Riley said before the All-Star break that he expected more from his superstar center. Specifically, Riley wanted to see Shaq get down the court faster and be more active on the backboards.

"He's had enough games,'' Riley told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He's in good enough shape where he's not hurting."

One promising sign for the Heat is that Shaq has picked up his play in the first two games since the All-Star break. He had 20 points and 16 boards in Wednesday's loss at Houston, the contest in which Wade went down with his injury. He had 17 and eight in Thursday's loss at Dallas.

Shaq, the NBA's highest-paid player at $20 million this season, is confident he can still be dominant once he gets back into condition and gets back to his normal minutes.

"I've only been averaging seven, eight, nine shots a game," O'Neal said. "You really can't get loose having that low of attempts. I've only been playing 20 minutes a game, also. So, hopefully, my minutes can go up, and I can deal with that more productively."

If Shaq can pick up his game, it will make it much easier for Miami's role players to thrive as well. So far this season they have been a disappointment, with Jason Williams in and out of the lineup with injuries, Gary Payton looking old and slow, and Walker and Posey even being sent home for a lack of conditioning. Walker is averaging career lows in points (8.3), rebounds (4.4) and assists (1.5).

The good news for Miami is that those same players are proven vets who know how to pace themselves for the long grind of the regular season. Also, the rest of the Heat rotation has been solid. Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning have made their usual contributions, while Kapono has emerged as the league's top three-point marksman.

"Guys that have been sort of deferring to Shaq and to Dwyane in doing their jobs," Riley said, "they have a chance to sort of rekindle some of the skills that made them who they are."

Assuming Wade decides not to shut it down to have surgery and makes it back by the end of the regular season, it is not inconceivable that Miami could still make a run at defending its crown. The Heat are currently in the No. 8 spot, just a half-game behind the Magic for seventh. The schedule is favorable, with 16 of their remaining 28 games at home. Meanwhile, their main competition for the final two playoff spots in the East (Orlando, New Jersey, New York) is all struggling.

Add it all up and one has to believe it's too early to write off the Heat just yet. The East is just bad enough that a .500 record the rest of the way might get Miami in. But it's going to take some impressive moves by Shaq if the Heat hope to dance in June.

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