With Dwyane Wade’s return in doubt, the Miami Heat are counting on Shaquille O’Neal to lead them into the postseason. That appears to have a good chance of happening if the star center continues to play like he has since Wade went down.
O’Neal looks to help the Heat to their ninth straight win at AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday when they face an Atlanta Hawks team they have not lost to at home in five years.
O’Neal had a season-high 31 points and added 15 rebounds in Friday’s 85-82 win over Detroit in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals.
“Dwyane was our first option because of the things he could do, but he’s not here now,” said O’Neal, who shot 12-of-16, went 7-for-14 at the line and had six assists. “So now it’s back to me being the first option.”
With Friday’s win, Miami (29-29) improved to 3-2 since Wade was sidelined with a dislocated left shoulder. The Heat went 1-6 in other games their star guard missed before his potential season-ending injury.
On Monday, Wade said he has decided to delay surgery and rehabilitate the shoulder with the goal of returning for the playoffs for Miami, which is tied for sixth place in the East with Indiana.
“My decision for the next two to three weeks is to rehab with the possibility of coming back, but with no guarantee,” Wade said. “I’ll find out after therapy and rehab how my body responds to things.”
Wade led Miami to the NBA championship last year and was third in the league this season with 28.8 points per game when he got hurt. O’Neal has been shouldering the load in his absence.
The 14-time All-Star is averaging 22.0 points and 9.4 boards in the five games since Wade was injured after averaging 15.4 and 6.6 in his first eight games back in the lineup following left knee surgery.
“We don’t need him to be dominant. We need for him to be real good,” Riley said of O’Neal. “He’s not the power player like he used to be. I actually think he’s more fundamental than he’s ever been, with his moves, by taking his time and showing real patience. That’s what we need out of Shaq.”
O’Neal is averaging 25.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in six games against the Hawks (22-38) since being traded to the Heat three seasons ago, although he did not play in Miami’s 93-88 overtime win against them Nov. 18 because of the knee injury that eventually required surgery.
The Heat have won 11 of their last 12 meetings with Atlanta, and nine straight at home in the series by an average of 16.2 points.
Miami has been exhibiting that kind of dominant home play against all opponents of late, outscoring teams by an average of 14.1 points and shooting 52.3 percent from the floor during an eight-game home win streak.
The Heat, who opened a six-game homestand with Friday’s victory, have not won nine straight at AmericanAirlines Arena since Jan. 30-March 8 of last season.
“We have a big homestand and we just want to try to win every game at home,” O’Neal said.
The Hawks have been outscored by 14.0 points per game in losing their last four road contests, and have dropped five straight away from Philips Arena overall.
Atlanta, last in the Southeast Division, blew a 15-point third-quarter lead and fell 104-100 in overtime to New York on Friday.
“We couldn’t come up with the big plays down the stretch,” said Joe Johnson, who scored a team-high 32 points. “It’s frustrating, but it’s been a trend of ours all year.”
Johnson, who leads the Hawks with a 25.3-point average, scored 22 in the November loss to the Heat. He’s averaging 15.3 points in his last three trips to Miami.