"We just had a period of getting refocused," he said. "It sort of felt like [making regular-season adjustments], but we are at a different stage of the season. Tonight, we're more relaxed."
The rookie proved prophetic as the Heat pulled a 180 and evened this suddenly interesting series with a 108-93 (RECAP | BOX) win over the Hawks. The hero was Dwyane Wade, he of the 33 points and outrageous game-clinching three-pointer that banked in at the shot-clock buzzer with 2:38 to play. But most encouraging for the Heat may have been the play of Jermaine O'Neal, who was highly criticized after his five-point, two-rebound effort in Game 1.
"That's why you don't read newspapers or listen to talk shows," O'Neal said.
The Heat ran a lot of their offense through O'Neal, according to coach Erik Spoelstra, and the big man responded with 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots. O'Neal drew several fouls on the Hawks' big men and was generally a serviceable Robin to Wade's Batman.
"We know what we are going to get out of Dwyane," said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who had two key jumpers down the stretch to keep the Hawks at arm's length. "[O'Neal] could be the X-factor in this series. If he plays well, it is going to be a pretty good series for us."
O'Neal spent extra time on the court before the game working with assistant Bob McAdoo on quick, power moves. O'Neal estimates the strength in his leg and knee is about 65 percent of what it should be, but he will not be able to regain all strength through rehab until the summer. Still, he knows he can be effective in other areas.
"I know when I'm healthy I can score on anyone," he said. "Right now, it is team defense, rebounding and doing what I can on offense."
For all of O'Neal's assistance, however, it was No. 3 who did the damage to a Hawks team that simply could not defend the Heat after putting together a near-flawless defensive effort in Game 1. Wade stretched the Heat's lead from six to 13 by scoring Miami's final 13 points of the first half on a series of bombs, then sealed it in the fourth with his bank shot over Joe Johnson that was from at least 35 feet.
"Just like everybody in the building, I'm not going to tell a story," Wade said. "I was shocked [it went in] too."
Wade had six of the Heat's 15 three-pointers, and Daequan Cook chipped in with six himself after going 0-for-5 from beyond the arc in Game 1. The Hawks still managed a balanced attack with six double-figure scorers, and they piled up 25 fast-break points, but they were unable to solve a Heat attack that was remolded following a two-hour film session on Monday.
"We played desperate tonight in terms of how we defended," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "We were more relaxed in Game 1 and stayed with the plan. But they made shots, so you have to give them credit."
Dwyane Wade. An easy choice with 33 points and seven assists, but don't forget his defensive work on Johnson (5-for-13, 16 points). "What is going to be required in this series is our best defensive player to play the majority of the minutes against their best offensive player," Spoelstra said.
Joe Johnson. The Atlanta All-Star had four turnovers and no assists. Plus, he picked up his fourth foul with 9:06 left in the third and had to leave the game for 10 critical minutes. The Hawks' best player was not at his best.
The Heat had built a 41-35 lead thanks to improved defense and rebounding, but Wade pushed that advantage to another level when he exploded for 13 straight points in the final four minutes of the half by draining three three-pointers and a long two in the face of Flip Murray and then later Maurice Evans. The Heat went into halftime up 54-41 thanks to Wade's barrage and were able to maintain at least a five-point edge the remainder of the game.
The Heat eclipsed their Game 1 point total with 8:10 remaining in the third quarter on a Wade three-pointer.
Spirit, Atlanta's live hawk mascot, caught the first few minutes of the game perched atop the Heat's basket. Normally, the hawk flies down from the upper deck from one trainer to another prior to introductions. On Wednesday, he flew to the scoreboard, then flew around before settling on the hoop. Before a jump ball at the 8:38 mark, the hawk finally flew to its trainer and was taken off the floor. "It's hard to play with your back to that hawk on the backboard," Wade said. ... O'Neal conducted his postgame interviews at his locker in Indiana Pacers shorts, the team he played with for eight years.
When you haven't won a seven-game series since 1970, nothing is going to be easy. The Hawks have lost home-court advantage as the series shifts to Miami for Game 3 on Saturday, but when you look at the two games, they still have the more balanced team and the ability to score much easier baskets than the Heat. Miami is shooting outside shots, while the Hawks are scoring in the paint and at the free-throw line.
"We missed a lot of open threes the other night," Spoelstra said. "They went in tonight and they made us look good. If they miss, you tend to look horrible."
If O'Neal can continue to do some damage at the offensive end, the Heat stand a chance, especially against a Hawks team that has been ordinary on the road this year (16-25). But the feeling here is the Hawks are still going to advance.