Chemistry issues were the biggest concern for the Miami Heat heading into this season because of a large roster turnover.
The Heat are one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference title, but it was unsure how well newcomers Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, James Posey and Jason Kapono would mesh with superstars O’Neal and guard Dwyane Wade—who got Miami within one victory of the NBA Finals last season.
Miami lost 105-102 on Thursday to Indiana, one of the other contenders in the East. But the loss of an early November game pales in comparison to the loss of O’Neal, who sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter and is expected to miss two to four weeks .
“He’s the most dominant player in the game,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said Thursday night. “If you don’t have him it definitely hurts you. At the same time, the other guys have the opportunity to step up.”
Even without O’Neal, Wade gave the Heat a chance to win. He finished with 31 points and 10 assists, but his potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds rattled out.
The injury to O’Neal and absence of injured center Michael Doleac puts the onus on veteran Alonzo Mourning. The 35-year-old center had 12 points and five rebounds Thursday and bristled at the suggestion he could not handle the increased workload.
“Did you see me play last year? OK, enough said,” said Mourning, who has played only 51 games over the past three seasons and missed the 2002-03 season after a kidney transplant. “I’m not sick. There’s nothing wrong with me. If I couldn’t play this game at a high level, I wouldn’t be here. So don’t question my abilities. Please don’t do that.”
The absence of O’Neal could mean success in the paint for the Bucks, who are off to their best start since going 4-0 in the 2001-02 season.
Milwaukee is coming off road wins at Philadelphia and most recently New Jersey, where it won 110-96 on Wednesday. Michael Redd scored 41 points and rookie Andrew Bogut added 10 points and 17 rebounds for the Bucks.
“This is a better team,” said Redd, who has scored 71 points in the first two games. “Last year there was a lot of pressure on me to put 20 or 30 points every night. This year I’m learning to let the game come to me.”
The Heat have won five straight games against the Bucks since a 108-104 defeat at Milwaukee on Feb. 29, 2004.
STANDINGS (through Nov. 4): Heat - 2nd place, 1 GB, Southeast Division. Bucks - 1st place (tied), Central Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Wade, 27.0 ppg and 8.0 apg; Walker, 11.5 rpg. Bucks - Redd, 35.5 ppg; Bogut, 13.0 rpg; Ford, 10.0 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: Heat, 4-0.
LAST MEETING: March 14; Heat, 110-71. At Miami, Wade scored 29 points on 10 of 12 shooting in only 26 minutes as the Heat shot 55 percent from the field.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Heat - 1-0 on the road; Bucks - 0-0 at home.