Heat 106, Hawks 89
MIAMI (AP)—After one particularly hard foul sent Shaquille O’Neal tumbling, the 7-foot-1 center rolled into a backward somersault before bouncing to his feet.
“I’m known as The Big Baryshnikov,” O’Neal said afterward, proud of his newest self-dubbed moniker.
Suffice to say, no ballet ever called for Mikhail Baryshnikov to take this kind of punishment.
O’Neal shook off double- and triple-teams—and incessant hacking nearly every time he got position down low—to score 22 points, passing Reggie Miller for 12th on the NBA’s career list and leading the Miami Heat to a four-game season sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with an 106-89 win on Monday night.
The win, combined with Washington’s loss at Utah, put the Heat—who were 7 1/2 games behind the Wizards on Jan. 30—alone in first place in the Southeast Division by a half-game, and vaulted the defending NBA champions from sixth to third in the Eastern Conference standings.
O’Neal entered the night 10 points behind Miller’s 25,279, and passed the former Indiana star with a free throw midway through the first half. That was fitting, since the Hawks sent him to the foul line a season-high 20 times. O’Neal made 12, another season-best, and finished with 11 rebounds.
“It just shows how the other opponent quits,” O’Neal said of the foul-often strategy. “Can’t stop him. Foul him.”
James Posey scored 19 points, shot 6-for-9 and finished with his second-best scoring night of the season for the Heat. Jason Williams had 14 points and Eddie Jones scored 13 for the Heat, who beat the Hawks for the 18th time in the last 21 meetings between the teams.
“They exposed us inside with Shaq,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “Everything went through Shaq. We got in foul trouble and he made his free throws.”
The Hawks sent Miami to the line a season-high-tying 45 times, largely because of their penchant for surrounding—then clobbering—O’Neal.
Lorenzen Wright started at center against O’Neal, and picked up four fouls in his seven minutes. Shelden Williams came off the bench, drawing four fouls in 15 minutes. Esteban Batista was called for five fouls in 13 minutes spent primarily guarding Miami’s biggest man, and hit O’Neal so often in the third quarter that Jason Williams turned to the scorer’s table and asked how many infractions he was allowed.
In the fourth, the Hawks asked Solomon Jones to take a turn—and he promptly fouled O’Neal four times in five minutes.
“We tried to make him earn it from the line and he definitely earned it tonight,” said Jones, who got a small cut on his lower lip as a souvenir of his battles with the man who outweighs him by 100 pounds. “It’s definitely a learning experience. You can’t get frustrated.”
Miami opened the game with a 15-4 run, capped by O’Neal’s three-point play. Atlanta chipped away and had a chance to take the lead on what could’ve been the final possession of the half, but Posey stole Anthony Johnson’s pass with 3.9 seconds left and got fouled.
Posey made both free throws, then stole Marvin Williams’ inbounds pass, got fouled and again hit a pair from the line to send Miami into the break with a 57-52 lead. Posey then hit a 3-pointer to open the third quarter, and the Heat steadily pulled away for just their second win in their last five games.
Miami opens a three-game road swing in Toronto on Wednesday.
“We needed this one to get our feet back under us a little bit,” Posey said. “It’s a boost, because we’re about to go on the road and need to take it to another level.”
O’Neal got position behind Batista midway through the fourth quarter, took a lob from Antoine Walker and threw down a dunk for a 97-77 lead, and the Heat bench was emptied not long afterward.
“We stayed exactly with the game plan,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “We kept pounding the ball into the post until something different was coming. We had whatever matchup we wanted in there.”
Posey’s season-high in scoring is 26 points, at New Jersey in December. … Hawks C Zaza Pachulia, who at 280 pounds probably had the best chance of being able to endure banging with O’Neal, did not play because of illness. … Walker played 11 first-half minutes without picking up a single stat, other than two fouls. … NBA finals MVP Dwyane Wade now has a new injury to deal with, albeit a minor one—and one that won’t impact his rehab from a dislocated left shoulder, either. He had a bandage on his face because of a mild skin irritation.