PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Game 1.
Shaquille O’Neal’s bruised right thigh is about to be put to the ultimate test.
It has been 13 days since O’Neal played in Game 2 of Miami’s conference semifinal series against Washington. He missed the final two games of the series because of the thigh bruise and practiced Saturday for the first time since that game.
“We just have to keep playing well,” O’Neal said. “I don’t want this to be about me. I haven’t been out there for a couple games, and the team has been playing well. If I play, we’re going to do the same thing. If I don’t, we’re going to do the same thing.”
The defending champion Pistons are familiar with O’Neal, eliminating his Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals last year. Detroit believes that O’Neal will be OK because of the lengthy time off.
“That’s what Shaq wants y’all to think, that he’s hurting,” Pistons center Ben Wallace said. “Shaq is going to be ready to play. Don’t keep feeding into that. There’s nothing wrong with Shaq.”
The Heat, though, said that O’Neal will be a game-time decision for Monday night. He did not practice Sunday but said then he was hopeful to play. O’Neal did not speak with reporters Monday morning.
He is averaging only 18.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in six playoff games. The three-time NBA Finals MVP has career postseason averages of 26.8 points and 12.7 rebounds, but his teammates apparently won’t know if they will be able to count on even a limited O’Neal until just before the game starts.
“We might not really know until the ball goes up,” Dwyane Wade said.
O’Neal might not be the biggest problem for Detroit anyway because of the emergence of Wade. The second-year guard led Miami to a pair of road wins to close out the series with Washington in O’Neal’s absence.
Wade is averaging 28.6 points and 8.4 assists in the playoffs to lead the Heat, who are 8-0 in the postseason. Detroit is expected to use small forward Tayshaun Prince to try to contain Wade.
“The key is to keep him out of the paint because not only is he a great scorer and finisher, but he’s very unselfish,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said.
The 6-foot-4 Wade is looking forward to the challenge of playing against the 6-9 Prince.
“Tayshaun is a very long athletic guy, a very defensive-minded guy,” Wade said. “He’s the key to their defense on the wing, and it’s going to be a tough matchup for me.”
Detroit captured the final three games of its conference semifinal series with Indiana to advance to the East finals for the third straight season. The Pistons improved to 3-2 on the road in the playoffs after winning Game 6 at Indiana, 88-79 last Thursday.
Known for their bruising defense, Detroit limited Indiana to an average of 74 points over the final three games. Miami is averaging 106.5 points in the playoffs.
“It’s going to be a battle royal,” Prince said. “This is where everybody wanted to be.”
Miami has won 24 of its last 25 games at home. The lone loss was an 80-72 defeat against Detroit on April 10 in which O’Neal sat out with a stomach virus.
Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, who is averaging a team-high 18.7 points in the playoffs, missed practice Saturday with a calf injury and is expected to start.
Game 2 is Wednesday in Miami.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Pistons - 2nd seed; beat Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, first round; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, conference semifinals. Heat - 1st seed; beat New Jersey Nets 4-0, first round; beat Washington Wizards 4-0, conference semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Pistons - Hamilton, 18.7 ppg; Ben Wallace, 12.2 rpg; Billups, 5.8 apg. Heat - Wade, 28.6 ppg and 8.4 apg; Haslem, 11.5 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pistons, 2-1. Wade notched his first career triple-double in Miami’s lone win, 89-78 on Dec. 30. Detroit posted a 78-77 win on Nov. 27 on Hamilton’s bank shot with 1.3 seconds left and Miami coach Stan Van Gundy was critical of the officiating afterward. The Pistons’ lone visit to the AmericanAirlines Arena resulted in an 80-72 win on April 10, but O’Neal was out for the Heat with a stomach virus.