Shaq is Baq
With his sidekick sidelined indefinitely, Shaquille O'Neal is proving that he's ready to return to center stage for the Heat
REPORTS OF Shaquille O'Neal's elderly demise were, like everything about him, exaggerated. A week before his 35th birthday O'Neal erupted in wins against two of the East's top three teams—producing 23 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks on Feb. 28 at Washington in a 92--83 decision and two nights later scorching the conference-leading Pistons with 31 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in an 85--82 victory that lifted the Heat, now in a tie for sixth in the East, to .500 (29--29).
It was O'Neal's proud response to suggestions that the defending champs would fade from the playoff picture with Dwyane Wade (and his 28.8 points per game) sidelined indefinitely by a separated left shoulder. Although O'Neal had averaged a measly 14.8 points and 6.7 rebounds before last week's wins, he wrote off those career lows to a pair of factors. The first was his decision upon arriving in Miami to become a secondary player to Wade. "That's how you're supposed to do it," he said last week. "It would have been really, really idiotic for a 34- or 35-year-old to take 25 shots when you've got a young talent like Dwyane. Here's why me and Kobe [Bryant] had problems: because it was two young guys going at it, and I wasn't going to lessen my game for him just because he was younger. I just wasn't going to do it. But now I'm 34, 35, I've got to [shoot less]. That's what every great big man does: Bill Russell did it, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] did it, Wilt Chamberlain did it."
The other limiting factor was the surgery O'Neal underwent in November to repair the flap tear in his left-knee cartilage, costing him 39 games. Shaq admits that his knee is still weak and that he feels the occasional twinge, but he looked strong against Detroit. "I've got to be trusting my knee," he says, "but the better shape I'm in, the more I'll trust it."
Coach Pat Riley reestablished O'Neal as Miami's primary option by slowing the game to a tempo like the Lakers' during their three-year title run, when O'Neal averaged 28.6 points and 12.4 rebounds. Riley will try to get 35 minutes and 40 touches per game from Shaq, who by his own calculations will convert 60% of his chances against single coverage. "There's still nobody who can guard him," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said after Friday's game. When O'Neal is double-teamed, the best passing center in the league will create open shots for the Heat's remaining complement of veterans, who are more than good enough to help O'Neal avoid the first losing season of his 15-year career.
On Monday, Wade announced that he will delay surgery on the shoulder he injured Feb. 21 and undergo a vigorous rehab program in hopes of returning before the playoffs—in which case, for a few weeks at least, he'll have to slow his game down for Shaq's sake, much as Bryant did. It's going to be a fascinating stretch run because O'Neal, for the first time in his life, is the underdog. If the Heat makes any kind of run, he'll have more people jumping on his bandwagon than ever. "It's going to be harder to win without [Wade]," O'Neal says, "but in the Eastern Conference anything is possible. I'm going to be there in the end when it all counts."
Last week's performances marked a return to form for the league's dominant presence, but the real surprise would have been Shaq's continuing to put up mediocre numbers. With or without Wade, the Heat will join the Pistons as the East's toughest outs in the postseason.
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On second-year point guards Deron Williams of the Jazz (17.3 points and 9.2 assists at week's end) and Chris Paul of the Hornets (17.3 and 8.7):
"Right now I would rank Williams (right) ahead of Paul, who got all the accolades as a rookie. Williams is always pushing the ball back at you, he takes the big shots in crunch time, and he's more versatile, especially as a scorer—Williams shoots the three, which is something Paul doesn't do. Plus, Williams [at 6'3", 210 pounds] is bigger and more physical than Paul [6 feet, 175]. Utah has had injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer, but the team hasn't folded. It's because Williams has become their rock."