Though he’s missed a large chunk of the season after knee surgery, Shaquille O’Neal is proving he can still carry a team during a playoff run.
With star guard Dwyane Wade out indefinitely due to a dislocated shoulder, O’Neal has been a dominant force during Miami’s season high-tying five-game winning streak, averaging 24.8 points, and 10.4 rebounds on 67.9 percent shooting. The winning streak started when O’Neal scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 92-83 win at Washington on Feb. 28.
A 14-time All-Star, who turned 35 on Tuesday, has helped pull the Heat (32-29) within two games of Washington (34-27).
“He’s carrying the whole franchise on his shoulder right now,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “You can’t ask anything more of him.”
With Wade out, O’Neal has re-emerged as Miami’s primary scoring option—and he’s shown he can still dominate in the paint.
Using jump hooks, drop steps and dunks, O’Neal scored a season-high 32 points Friday, lifting the surging Heat to a 105-91 victory over Minnesota. He made his first seven shots, was 13-of-16 from the field and had nine rebounds, as Miami won its 11th consecutive game at home.
“He seems to keep getting healthier and hungrier and, to be honest with you, more humble,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “The fact that he’s doing these things now, every single night, maybe with the backdrop that some people doubted that he could do it is making him feel good about himself.”
O’Neal—a three-time NBA Finals MVP—appears determined to put the Heat in position to defend their championship.
“I’m on a mission. And I know the older I get, I may lose a step or two, but it’s all up in the medulla oblongata,” O’Neal said. “I’ve got a lot up there. I’ve got a lot of knowledge… in this medulla oblongata.”
O’Neal hopes his knowledge will help him replicate his last performance against the Wizards, when he outplayed Brendan Haywood to shoot 11-for-17 from the field with three blocks.
“If somebody thinks he’s too old or too whatever, at the end of the day the man’s still over 300 pounds,” Haywood said. “When somebody weighs that much more than you, there’s nothing you can really do if there’s no double-team coming.
“It’s like playing against your big brother. You can try as hard as you want to, but he’s older and bigger than you and there’s nothing you can do.”
O’Neal, who is averaging 26.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in 34 career games against Washington, might be expecting more double-teams in this meeting, but he isn’t concerned with his stats.
“Just winning,” O’Neal said. “It’s all about winning, winning games, winning championships, just winning.”
Miami has won 13 of the last 14 meetings with the Wizards including six in a row at home. The Heat lost 106-95 in Washington on Dec. 15 with Wade and O’Neal both sidelined by injuries.
The Wizards hope they can end the Heat’s run while avoiding their own three-game slide. They lost 90-89 to New York on Saturday when Steve Francis made a 3-pointer as time expired.
The Wizards are 7-10 since holding a 7 1/2-game lead over the then-third-place Heat on Jan. 30. Washington is averaging 98.9 points per game in that stretch - a drop from its conference-leading 105.1 average.
Gilbert Arenas, who led Washington with 25 points Saturday, was held to only 15 points on 3-for-18 shooting in the last contest with Miami.