O’Neal has missed 18 straight games with a badly sprained right ankle suffered in the Heat’s 105-102 loss to Indiana on Nov. 3. It’s the longest absence due to injury for the 12-time All-Star since he missed 20 games with an abdominal strain early in the 1997-98 season, when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 7-foot-1 O’Neal returned to practice this week and participated in Miami’s shootaround Friday. He practiced Saturday and hopes to get back in uniform Sunday.
“We moved pretty good through the walkthrough. We went pretty hard,” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. “And he moved through it pretty well. … It was encouraging.”
The Heat certainly could use him.
Miami suffered its season-high fourth straight loss Friday, 100-92 to the Denver Nuggets, and dropped to 9-9 without their $20 million-a-year big man.
“Our focus has to be on getting better,” Van Gundy said. “We can play the game better whether Shaq’s there or not.”
Alonzo Mourning has filled in at center for O’Neal, averaging 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. However, he was ejected Friday after picking up his second technical foul 25 seconds into the second half, leaving the Heat with no post presence.
Dwayne Wade scored a season-high 37 points, but it wasn’t enough as the Nuggets executed better down the stretch, finishing the game on a 12-0 run.
“You give up a runout to lose the game, you deserve to lose,” Van Gundy said. “Plain and simple, you deserve to lose. Nobody should feel sorry for you. If you haven’t learned things like that over your time in the league, you’re not experienced. You’re just old.”
“A lot of the games we’ve lost, we’ve been right in there,” said Wade, who also had 10 rebounds Saturday. “It’s been down to the wire. So far, early in the season, the luck hasn’t went our way. Sixty-two games left. We’re not down on ourselves.”
Gary Payton scored 13 points Friday for the 1,000th double-digit scoring effort of his career—most among active NBA players. Antoine Walker added 17 points for Miami, which has dominated Washington of late.
The Heat have won eight straight regular-season meetings against the Wizards, and swept them in the second round of the playoffs last season before losing to Detroit in the conference finals.
Washington suffered its ninth loss in 12 games Saturday after letting a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 118-111 defeat to the Chicago Bulls.
“It’s an embarrassment to play that way, four or five minutes to go and lose a 12-point lead,” said Antawn Jamison, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds for the Wizards. “I’m going to find a way to motivate these guys. Maybe I have to whoop and holler every game. Maybe I have to get more emotional.”
Gilbert Arenas scored 42 points, but limped off the court in the final minutes. His “whole right side” is aching from a big bruise, an aggravation of back soreness, but he will try to play Sunday.
“I don’t want to let a little stupid back injury hurt and disappoint my team,” he said.
STANDINGS (through Dec. 10): Wizards - 2nd place, 1 GB, Southeast Division. Heat - 1st place, Southeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Wizards - Arenas, 27.9 ppg and 6.2 apg; Jamison, 11.6 rpg. Heat - Wade, 26.7 ppg and 6.7 apg; Mourning, 8.1 rpg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: Heat, 4-0.
LAST MEETING: Dec. 15, 2004; Heat, 98-93. At Washington, Wade had 29 points and nine assists and O’Neal added 13 points and 12 rebounds for Miami.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Wizards - 3-6 on the road; Heat - 7-3 at home.