The Miami Heat are back in first place thanks in part to a strong performance from big man Shaquille O’Neal. The Toronto Raptors hope to maintain their division lead despite the loss of starting forward Jorge Garbajosa.
The teams put identical records on the line when they meet for the second time this season on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre.
Miami and Toronto are both 38-32, but the Heat currently hold the edge in the Eastern Conference standings due to their 99-77 win over the Raptors on Dec. 11 in the only meeting this season. Miami’s division lead, however, is much more tenuous than Toronto’s.
While O’Neal has lifted the Heat to a half-game lead over Washington in the Southeast, the Raptors are up six games on second-place New Jersey in the Atlantic. Their pursuit of the first division title in franchise history, however, could be hampered by the loss of Garbajosa, who may be done for the season after getting hurt on Monday.
The Heat’s 106-89 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, coupled with Washington’s defeat to Utah, pushed Miami ahead of the Wizards for first place. O’Neal battled through double- and triple-teams to spur that win with 22 points and 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season and first in 12 games.
The 7-foot-1 center had 20 free-throw attempts and made 12—both season highs. He moved into 12th on the NBA’s career scoring list with 25,291 points, surpassing Reggie Miller, who has 25,279. Next on the list is Alex English with 25,613.
“We have 12 games left. I’m just trying to get into playoff mode,” said O’Neal, who has averaged 27.4 points in 20 career meetings with the Raptors. “I just have to come out with a lot of energy and do my thing early, and that’s what I did. When I get going, the team gets going.”
James Posey got going with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting after scoring just eight points in each of the previous two games—both losses—while making 6-of-17 from the field.
“We needed this one to get our feet back under us a little bit,” said Posey, averaging 10.4 points since joining the starting lineup 11 games ago. “It’s a boost, because we’re about to go on the road and need to take it to another level.”
Miami plays five of its next six away from home, including the next three, and is just 14-20 on the road this season. The Heat have enjoyed their trips to Toronto, though, winning six of their last seven there. They have won four straight overall meetings between these teams and seven of eight.
The Raptors are 25-10 at home, winning 14 of their last 17, but are still reeling from the loss of Garbajosa. The 6-foot-9 rookie suffered a serious left ankle injury in the fourth quarter of Monday’s 95-87 defeat to the Boston Celtics when he went up to block a shot and fell awkwardly on his left leg.
Garbajosa screamed in pain and left on a stretcher before being taken to the hospital, where he spent the night. He was scheduled to undergo further evaluation in Toronto on Tuesday.
Garbajosa is averaging 8.5 points and 4.9 rebounds and had been coming off a career-high 22-point effort in a win over Denver on Friday.
“He’s a big part of our team, so we’re definitely going to miss him,” said Raptors guard T.J. Ford, who led the team with a season high-tying 28 points along with nine assists Monday. “I hate that it happened because he brings so much to the table. On the defensive end, on the offensive end, his knowledge of the game—man it’s tough.”
Garbajosa’s 78 steals are second-most on the team behind Ford’s 87.
Toronto already was dealing with the loss of rookie forward Andrea Bargnani, who had an appendectomy last Wednesday and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Ford, leading scorer Chris Bosh, Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon also have battled injuries this season.
Despite struggling to stay healthy, the Raptors are in position for their first playoff berth since 2001-02.
These teams conclude their season series Tuesday in Miami.