MIAMI -- Walking with a limp, Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal hobbled out of the Heat locker room Tuesday night, turning toward a cluster of terminally ill children and their parents waiting for him in a dimly lit corridor. As he broke into the circle, a wide grin spread over his face. Shortly before the Heat's last regular season home game, which the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O'Neal would miss because of a severely bruised right thigh, he handed out handshakes and wisecracks, towering over the adoring group. For 15 minutes, he stood on the bum leg that he later said hurt too much to bend.
At one point, a Heat staffer handed O'Neal a towel to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Before hobbling off to a training table for another round of intensive treatment designed to ready him for Sunday's playoff opener against the New Jersey Nets, O'Neal tenderly picked up two teenage girls -- both afflicted with dwarfism, both wearing tiny O'Neal jerseys -- and held each in his massive right arm for photos.
Since "un-guardable" Shaquille O'Neal, left, joined the Heat, the field goal percentage of every Miami starter has increased from last season to this one.
(Wilfredo Lee -- AP)
The snapshots capture a bigger story, too. Since going to the Heat in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, O'Neal has carried this team and, in many ways, the entire Miami community with as much finesse as raw power. A brutish presence in size-22 EEE shoes whose cross-country move single-handedly transferred the NBA's power center from the Western Conference to the East, O'Neal has guided the Heat, considered a raw, up-and-coming team last season, with a conductor's grace and big-picture sensibility. And he will be expected to bring this unique combination of heavy lifting and orchestral magic to the Heat throughout the playoffs, whether he is in full health or not.
"I'm not really concerned," O'Neal said. "Even though I missed those games, it was still a lot of rest for me. . . . I'm going to turn the bad into good -- always."
At the moment, getting O'Neal over the thigh bruise and reacquainted with the rest of the starting five dominates Miami's to-do list as it prepares to play New Jersey, against which it posted a 3-0 regular season record. O'Neal, who was held out of practice yesterday, is expected to play in Game 1, but it is unclear whether he will be at full strength. Certainly, his absence has disrupted plans. Because of the injury and a recent stomach flu that caused him to lose nearly 10 pounds, O'Neal missed 5 1/2 of the Heat's last eight games. Just before O'Neal caught the flu, the Heat had reached the apex of a season that included 17 more victories than in 2003-04, defeating the Phoenix Suns on March 25 to take over the league lead in winning percentage.
But with O'Neal spending considerable time on the sidelines, the Heat sputtered to a 6-6 mark over its last 12 games, finishing with three fewer victories than the Suns.
"Earlier in the year we played without him and I think for that stretch, it was good in some ways," said Coach Stan Van Gundy, handed the reins of the team when Pat Riley assumed the team's full-time presidency at the start of last season. "Now . . . it's not ideal. It's not what we wanted heading into the playoffs."
Van Gundy's trepidation is understandable given the team's seemingly cursed playoff history. The Heat assembled a star cast in the mid-1990s led by then-coach Riley, center Alonzo Mourning -- now with the team as a backup -- and point guard Tim Hardaway, but that team exited the playoffs for two straight years at the hands of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Then came three heartbreaking series defeats to the New York Knicks, Riley's former employer. When the overachieving Heat last season fell to the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals, it was considered the first morale-boosting playoff performance in some time.
The sense of impending and inevitable doom beaten into the franchise over the last decade went out the window last July 14, even though the Heat gave up young stars Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant to get O'Neal. For one thing, the Heat managed to hold onto burgeoning star Dwyane Wade, a high-flying acrobat who, with O'Neal, gives Miami a dynamic duo that harkens back to Shaq-Kobe and Shaq-Penny. Those dominant twosomes in Los Angeles and Orlando made a combined five trips to the NBA Finals.
"Bringing Shaq here, it felt like we really had a chance for the first year that I can recall," said Heat owner Micky Arison, who has had full ownership of the team since 1995. "Even though we had 61 wins, in the past [1996-97] you almost had the sense we wouldn't get over the Michael Jordan Mountain. . . . I think we all feel we have a chance now. It's fun."
O'Neal, who spent the last of his eight seasons in Los Angeles feuding with Kobe Bryant, mostly has made friends and fans in Miami, where he bought a $19 million waterfront home to cement his place in the community soon after the trade. It's no coincidence that the Heat obliterated its previous franchise record for attendance this season, averaging 19,882 per game, a 30.5 percent increase over last year. With his eye for cameras, soft spot for charitable causes, well-timed smiles and devilish sense of humor, O'Neal has become a warm and fuzzy celebrity about town, so much so the Miami Herald ran a front-page story on his personal tailor and $250,000 shoe collection and also reported on the specifics of his 33rd birthday party at a hip South Beach hotel, which included suede invitations, a celebrity guest list and a $10,000 cake with a nearly life-size image of the birthday boy himself.
"He's just been a huge positive for the franchise and city -- a lot more than I realized," Arison said. "I think the general impression of Shaq is better than it was a year or two ago. His personality has flourished."
His game hasn't been bad, either.
"Monumental," Heat point guard Damon Jones said when asked about O'Neal's contribution. "There has been a monumental change around here."
The Heat didn't merely get another marquee player in the O'Neal deal, it got a three-time NBA Finals MVP who, in the words of one Eastern Conference scout, is "completely un-guardable," and who, according to O'Neal himself, no longer cares about the individual accolades he strove for in his younger days and who, in the words of his teammates, has kept a young, largely inexperienced team loose and happy -- especially because the Big Fella keeps feeding all of his teammates passes.
The combination of the constant double-teams he draws, and his obvious willingness to spread the ball around, hasn't merely made the Heat more powerful, it's empowered the entire lineup with a poise and scoring potential that did not exist before.
"What he did for his team [is] in terms of elevating their guys," Charlotte Bobcats Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said this week. "Every guy has confidence. Their defense is better knowing he's back there. When you cut to the basket, he makes the passes."
Just ask the Heat statisticians. In their daily note package, Heat officials note the power of the "Shaq Factor," pointing out that the field goal percentage of every Heat starter has increased from last season to this one. Journeyman Jones, who has been with nine teams in six years, set a franchise record for most three-point field goals in one season (225) and landed in eighth place on the NBA all-time list. Wade set the Heat single-season scoring mark (24.1 points per game) while drawing increasing comparisons to Jordan. Udonis Haslem has gone from anonymity to consistency; he hit 54 percent of his field goals. Eddie Jones, reviled in recent years in Miami for his big contract and small finishes, saw his field goal percentage (42.8 percent) increase every single month of the season.
"This team was a playoff team last year, fighting for home-court advantage," forward Rasual Butler said. O'Neal "came here and turned this organization into a championships contender. I can't really explain it. He's someone whose changed all of the dynamics of this organization."