By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
MIAMI -- The transformation of the Miami Heat during the first two rounds of the playoffs seemed almost mystical. Players who previously played poorly rose. Slugs, in the words of one critical analyst, morphed into contributors. A team split by differences of opinion and seemingly different rhythms abruptly came together as the Heat won four straight games to end its Eastern Conference semifinal against the New Jersey Nets last Tuesday.
Much of Miami's makeover has been mental, players say, but there is one piece that is purely physical, and that piece is a pretty big one. It stands 6 feet 10 inches and weighs 261 pounds, and it's getting stronger and healthier.
Consistent with the Heat's considerable improvement throughout the postseason was the gradual and somewhat quiet return to the court of Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal's accomplished understudy. During a playoff run in which O'Neal has struggled more than at any point in his career because of foul trouble, Mourning's return to nearly full health did not merely patch up the problem of O'Neal's shrunken offensive production, it virtually eliminated it.
Though Mourning is not quite at his physical peak after a six-week absence, and O'Neal has played well below his performance peak as he negotiates a surprising minefield of referees' whistles, the two together have become Miami's multidimensional monster in the middle as the Heat prepares to face the Detroit Pistons for the second straight year in the Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 is tonight in Detroit. "Since I came into the league, I don't really think there's been anything like it," NBA Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly said about the pair. "A lot of teams have a good center, but to have two guys like that is pretty unique. I hear about all the players who are going to be MVPs, and they're all wonderful, but I'm telling you, if you're starting a team, wouldn't you start with [O'Neal]? [And] the second guy is really one of the best, if not the best, defensive centers in the league."
Said Jack Ramsay, another Hall of Fame coach, "It's a perfect combination."
And "a nightmare" Daly said, "for the opposing coach."
O'Neal and Mourning, the first and second overall picks in the 1992 draft, give Miami the best one-two combination at center in recent memory and possibly in league history, Daly said, providing opposing teams little hope of matching up well against the Heat. Detroit, which defeated Miami in seven games in last year's playoffs, brings defensive player of the year Ben Wallace, but O'Neal had his way with Wallace when in single coverage last year. Detroit was only effective against O'Neal when the Pistons sent double teams. Mourning, meantime, can either spell O'Neal or play next to him at power forward, a possibly useful ploy against Detroit's big, long-armed starting lineup.
"Ben Wallace, who somehow gets to be defender of the year, he can't stop Shaq," Ramsay said. Mourning "is the best backup center in the game. One guy can't be stopped on offense, another finished plays . . . and is a defensive presence."
O'Neal, however, is in the midst of the most perplexing playoff run of his career. His offensive firepower and more routine defensive play have been muted by the fouls that have plagued his power offensive moves. Limited by foul trouble in six of Miami's 11 playoff games, he's played fewer minutes (31.0 average) and scored fewer points (19.3) than in any of his 12 previous playoffs.
He remains one of the league's most dominant offensive players in his 14th season, a fact borne out by his 12-point first-quarter splurge against single coverage in Game 5 against the Nets. But he admits to taking a more cautious approach to avoid picking up extra fouls. O'Neal occasionally all but surrenders lanes to the basket, stepping aside to avoid contact.
Mourning, meantime, despite a daily battle with kidney disease and a still-tender calf, hasn't lost any of his intense and fearsome personality. After a couple of first-round games in which "he appeared sluggish at times," according to Heat Coach Pat Riley, he suddenly regained his muscle-flexing persona. And Miami's week-long break between games surely benefited Mourning.
"I don't feel like I'm 100 percent," Mourning said Friday after practice. "I don't feel the way I felt before I got hurt. . . . But I do know I've made tremendous amounts of strides."
O'Neal frequently was in foul trouble early in the playoffs, but at the pleading of coaches and teammates, he has adjusted.
It's worked to some degree. "He's reacting and being more clever around the basket," Daly said.
But the foul trouble has not been eliminated. Mourning said referees simply have been calling the game differently against O'Neal.
"I'm not known for finesse," O'Neal said. "I don't really like playing cautious. Knowing [Mourning] is backing me up, I don't really worry about it too much."
In three of the five games of Miami's last series, O'Neal played less than 30 minutes. But by Game 3 of the series, Mourning -- rather than Michael Doleac -- was healthy enough to back up O'Neal full-time.
Mourning, in fact, was on the court as the Heat came back from an early deficit in Game 5. In 21 minutes, he scored 11 points, including 4 of 4 field goal attempts, grabbed four rebounds and blocked one shot. His mere presence affected countless others, as Nets guards routinely cowered when he entered their line of vision. O'Neal, who scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 25 minutes with three rebounds, was arguably less of a factor in the victory.
"Everybody has to stay ready when their number is called," Mourning said. "This is our third time [in the conference finals]. When you get this far, it's not a promise that you will get back. We see this as a golden opportunity, seeing as everybody is healthy."