Winning two of three games ahead of the break had to be uplifting for a Miami Heat team seeking a return to the playoffs.
But making a few changes to the roster - including the addition of an All-Star big man - could prove to be an even bigger boost for their postseason aspirations.
One season after matching its franchise-worst record of 15-67, Miami (28-24) is currently third in the Southeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference.
But the Heat hadn’t been playing like contenders lately, following a three-game winning streak from Jan. 24-28 with five losses in their next eight games.
Miami, though, won two of three entering the break, including Thursday’s 95-93 victory at Chicago on Shawn Marion’s dunk with 1.1 seconds remaining.
That basket turned out to be Marion’s final act with the Heat as he was dealt to Toronto the next day with Marcus Banks and cash considerations for 13-year pro O’Neal, Jamario Moon and a future first-round draft pick. The move clears enough cap space for next summer and should help the Heat improve their frontcourt.
After using several different players at center, Miami expects to have the 6-foot-11, 260-pound O’Neal available Wednesday.
“You’ve got to get honest with yourself and say if you’re going to compete with the big boys, you’ve got to get somebody in the middle,” Heat president Pat Riley said.
O’Neal had 13.5 points and 7.0 boards per game for Toronto, while Moon averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. They join an offense that is led by Wade - among the league’s leading scorers with 28.3 points per game - but is averaging just 96.3 points.
“Everybody in here, in the locker room, is open to these guys coming in,” Wade said Tuesday. “You can see the conscious effort of guys wanting to make it work.”
The Heat get back to work at home versus a Minnesota team that has lost three straight on the road and four in a row in Miami by an average of 15.5 points.
They’ve also won six of their last eight overall against the Timberwolves but can’t afford to look past them with their next four games against potential postseason clubs.
“It gives you added motivation to come in and play even harder,” said O’Neal, a six-time All-Star that last reached the playoffs in 2005-06 with Indiana.
O’Neal had 22 points and eight rebounds in the Raptors’ win at Minnesota on Feb. 10, and he’s averaged 18.1 and 9.0 boards in his last 10 against them.
Minnesota (17-35) stumbled into the All-Star break with seven losses in eight games, then returned with a 111-103 defeat at Washington - the East’s worst team - on Tuesday night.
It was the Timberwolves’ second contest without center Al Jefferson, who is scheduled for season-ending knee surgery Wednesday.
Randy Foye had 23 points, while Kevin Love had his fifth double-double in six games (17 points, 11 rebounds) for Minnesota, which overcame a 19-point halftime deficit but blew a six-point fourth-quarter lead in its fifth straight loss.
“We came back and I thought gave ourselves a chance. That’s what we talked about, putting yourself in position to win games,” coach Kevin McHale said.
McHale’s team fell 99-96 at home to the Heat on Jan. 13 in the lone matchup this season. Wade had 31 points for Miami, while Foye’s 29 led the Timberwolves.