The NBA's most irresistible force is growing old. Shaquille O'Neal is 33, and he has spent the last month dragging his right leg while struggling to dominate as he once did. "This is the first time something like this has happened to me [in the postseason]," says O'Neal of the deep right thigh bruise that has weakened him and limited his minutes. "All of the other times I was feeling good, it was easy. Now I've got to work."
Have the fruits of his labor ever been more satisfying? On Sunday, Shaq scored 24 points in 36 minutes to power the Heat to a 113-104 Game 3 win in Detroit that gave Miami a 2-1 series lead and restored its home court advantage against the defending champion Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. O'Neal got an inspirational assist from an unlikely source: Heat backup center Alonzo Mourning, who was a bitter rival of his when O'Neal was with the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers. Now 35, the 6'10", 261-pound Mourning has developed into Shaq's biggest booster as well as his shot-swatting partner in crunch time. "He has something to prove to all those people out there who said he can't do it without the other guy in L.A.," says Mourning, referring to Kobe Bryant. Zo rates Shaq's health at 75% to 80%, adding ominously, "And he's continually getting better."
That the 7'1", 325-pound Diesel would surge with the Finals in sight is fitting; it's as if, in this day of Jordanesque dunkers and 7-foot three-point shooters, dinosaurs are once again ruling the playoffs. In stretches, O'Neal and Mourning constitute an inside combo as fierce as any in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs, who held a 3-1 lead over the Phoenix Suns in the Western finals, start hypereffective 7-footer Tim Duncan (page 52) alongside 6'10" rebounding machine Nazr Mohammed, then bring 6'10" Robert Horry and 7-foot Rasho Nesterovic off the bench. And Detroit's front line is long and versatile enough to have held its own in any era, from the Mikan '50s to the Russell '60s to the Abdul-Jabbar '70s and '80s.
While most NBA teams have trouble landing one bona fide big man, Pistons president Joe Dumars has acquired three current or former All-Stars since 2000--6'9" center Ben Wallace (the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year), 6'11" Rasheed Wallace and 6'9" Antonio McDyess. Detroit can also bring 7-foot, 279-pound Elden Campbell (picked up as a free agent in March) off the bench for a few minutes of sumo defense against Shaq. "The results speak for themselves," says Dumars. "You can never have too many big guys, especially if they're willing to play a role and be ferocious on defense, rebound, block shots and protect the paint. I'll put out the HELP WANTED ad--any big guy willing to do that, man, I'm interested."
Heat president Pat Riley shares that point of view, which is why he signed Mourning as a free agent in March, three weeks after Zo had been released by the Toronto Raptors (following his arrival in the trade that sent Vince Carter to the New Jersey Nets). Mourning's revival is a miracle of science and willpower: After undergoing a kidney transplant in December 2003 as treatment for an incurable disease, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, he rebuilt his muscle mass with painful workouts in hopes of fulfilling his dream of an NBA championship.
In fact, when the Eastern finals began in Miami, Zo was in far better shape than Shaq, whose thigh bruise (suffered in the last week of the regular season) had sidelined him for half of the Heat's second-round sweep of the Washington Wizards. After losing Game 1 to Detroit, Miami got a franchise playoff record 40 points from 23-year-old guard Dwyane Wade to win Game 2--a display that brought out the paternal side of O'Neal, who believes he has been a better leader for the Heat than he was for his previous teams. "I learned from my mistakes with my two kids before, and I won't make those same mistakes with D-Wade," says O'Neal, referring to dysfunctional relationships he had with sidekicks in Orlando and L.A. "The mistake I made with Penny [Hardaway] and Kobe is when I yelled at them, and they took it personal. I never raise my voice at Dwyane."
That TLC has paid off--Wade has been extraordinary in the postseason--but it was clear once the Detroit series got rolling that Miami couldn't prevail without greater production from Shaq, who contributed only 37 points in the first two games. O'Neal had averaged 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.34 blocks in the regular season, but through two games against the Pistons his playoff numbers had dropped to 18.8, 7.8 and 1.22, respectively. Fortunately for O'Neal, the schedule allowed three full days of rest to help him back on his size-22 feet for Game 3. "He looked at me on the bus [on Sunday] and said, 'I got you tonight, I feel great,'" said Mourning.
Detroit's plan was to outrun Shaq and attack the hoop before he could defend it. But O'Neal controlled the tempo early with his most spirited stint of the playoffs. In Game 2 he had compensated for his lack of agility by trying to move Ben Wallace with elbows to the chest. This time O'Neal was nimble enough to spin away from Wallace to the baseline or into the lane, hitting 7 of 8 shots before halftime. Shaq also peeked over Big Ben's Afro as if looking over shrubs into a neighbor's backyard and found cutters; he finished with five assists, tying for the game high. With the Pistons reluctant to double-team, O'Neal opened driving lanes for Wade, who poured in 33 points and led Detroit coach Larry Brown to lament, "He got anything he wanted."
Meanwhile, Shaq and Zo guarded the rim like a pair of giant Dobermans. Miami coach Stan Van Gundy had wanted to deploy his twin towers during the regular season, but Mourning's poor conditioning and then O'Neal's minor injuries had prevented the two from joining forces until the second half of Game 1 against the Pistons. The partnership--they averaged 7.3 minutes on the court together through the first three games--liberated Mourning to hunt aggressively for shots to swat; through Sunday he and O'Neal had doublehandedly outblocked Detroit 13-12. Expect the Pistons to counter with side-to-side ball movement and pick-and-rolls, which would demand more effective play from point guard Chauncey Billups (40.0% shooting, 11 turnovers and only 15 assists in three games). Detroit has proved its ability to come back in a series; it rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Magic in 2003 and from 3-2 down against the Nets in '04. "We understand we're going to be in for a fight," says Mourning.
Seeing Zo battling alongside Shaq in a title chase rather than against him remains startling. "When they were younger, it was a clash of the titans when they were matched up against each other," says Heat reserve forward Christian Laettner, who was the No. 3 pick, after O'Neal and Mourning, in the 1992 draft. "And if they were matched up now, it would still be a clash of the titans because they're two of the biggest, baddest centers that ever played the game. But once they got to know each other, they realized they're both good men, good people, with a lot of similarities." Adds Miami assistant Bob McAdoo, "They pump each other up, they encourage each other, they put their arms around each other like they've been friends. Shaq's won his championships, and he's sympathetic to Alonzo's condition and what he went through, so he wants to see him get his. It's amazing how guys who were rivals can get like that."
Ultimately, whether O'Neal can remain healthy and stay one step ahead of Detroit's fleet frontcourt will be decisive in the Heat's Finals run. "This is not about me," he says. "This is about my use to us." His new partner appreciates that perspective. "Shaq doesn't want to waste this opportunity," Mourning says, "because there's no guarantee we'll have it again."