One season after facing the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat might settle for playing them in the first round. That may only happen if Shaquille O’Neal keeps stepping up his game.
On the verge of finding out if Dwyane Wade will even return this season, the Heat look for another strong performance from O’Neal on Friday as they open a six-game homestand against the surging Pistons.
Fighting to remain in the playoff picture without Wade, O’Neal took control in the Heat’s 92-83 road win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. Using a variety of inside moves, O’Neal scored a season-high 23 points to go with 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 37 minutes against one of the East’s top teams.
“A lot of people don’t think he can play anymore,” Miami coach Pat Riley said. “That’s why they guard him one-on-one. They’re making a big mistake if he keeps getting his rhythm down.”
O’Neal, who missed 39 games because of a knee injury, is averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 18 games. With Wade out, the Heat can use more games from O’Neal like the one he had Wednesday. It appears the three-time NBA Finals MVP is starting to feel more comfortable, averaging 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in his last five games.
“I don’t have the same 1,000-percent explosiveness,” said O’Neal, who did not play in an 87-85 home loss to Detroit on Nov. 30. “But it’s coming back.”
Wade might not be coming back anytime soon, and Miami is 2-2 without him. He plans to decide by the end of the week if he will undergo season-ending surgery for his dislocated shoulder or go to rehab in hopes of returning later this season or in the playoffs.
While Wade averaged 26.7 points in last year’s conference finals, O’Neal was nearly as big a factor in Miami’s six-game victory over Detroit as he averaged 21.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. His presence could mean even more in a rematch this postseason, not only due to Wade’s situation, but because the Pistons may be more vulnerable inside with defensive standout Ben Wallace no longer on the team.
“I’m known as ‘The Big Sewer,’” O’Neal said Wednesday, “because I’ve got a lot of you-know-what in my game.”
The Heat, winners of a season-high seven straight at home, are seventh in the conference but only a half-game ahead of New Jersey for the eighth and final playoff spot and one game in front of ninth-place Orlando.
If Miami does qualify, it could open the playoffs against Detroit, which has built a sizable lead atop the East by winning four straight and 11 of 12.
The Pistons (36-19) have not played since a 95-93 home win over Chicago on Sunday, and they hope forward Rasheed Wallace benefited from the time off. He could be in the starting lineup Friday after leaving Sunday’s game with an ankle injury.
“We decided to not take any gambles,” Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. “He could’ve come back.”
Chris Webber helped make up for Wallace’s absence, matching a season high with 21 points and hitting a putback with 2.2 seconds left that gave Detroit a win over the Bulls and Ben Wallace. The Pistons are 15-4 since acquiring Webber after he was let go by Philadelphia.
“I’m not trying to replace Ben,” said Webber, who is averaging 13.2 points and 7.0 rebounds with Detroit. “I just am playing like a guy that is happy to be a Piston.”