Brendan Haywood left practice yesterday wearing an oversized gray sweat suit. Although Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan has recently nicknamed his 7-foot starting center "the Hulk," Haywood wasn't exactly busting out of his clothes in anticipation of his season debut tonight in Miami.

But after missing the first three games of the season serving a suspension for fighting, he was eager to finally hit the floor against Shaquille O'Neal. "It's a challenging first game, but I'm up for the challenge," Haywood said. "I could probably use some of the Hulk's strength. If I don't have the Hulk's strength, I'll just have to go in with what I've got."

After signing a five-year, $25 million contract extension last week, the Wizards are hoping what he has is more than good enough.

"It's good going into the year having [the contract] out of the way. I wasn't focusing on that anyway, but now, you don't have to worry about it," said Haywood, who averaged seven points, five rebounds and 1.3 blocks last season. "If you have a bad game, what does that mean? You can just go out there and play."

Without Haywood, the Wizards were able to win their first two games with Michael Ruffin, a 6-foot-8 reserve power forward, starting at center. But in Saturday's home opener, a 118-106 loss against the Heat, Ruffin and backup Samaki Walker both fouled out in 17 minutes, leaving Jordan to rely on small forward Jared Jeffries to defend O'Neal in the crucial final stretch of the game.

"It's good to have Hulk back," Jordan said. "It gives us a good rotation of our big people. It just seems like when he's gone, he's a big piece and we need him."

Haywood spent last summer serving as a television analyst for Washington Mystics basketball games, offering critiques and anecdotes. While watching the Wizards play the first three games from his home, Haywood said it was obvious to him why the Wizards aren't 3-0 -- and it had nothing to do with Ruffin and Walker fouling out. "If we cut off a couple of those layups against Miami, we could've won that game," Haywood said.

The Heat scored 52 points inside against the Wizards, most of them coming off drives to the basket by second-year guard Dwyane Wade, who scored a career-high 37 points with 12 assists. Only three of Wade's 11 field goals were from beyond 11 feet.

Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas blamed the matador defense on the league's emphasis on cutting back on physical play and officials calling fouls for contact on drives.

"It's tricky for us," Arenas said. "You can't touch the defender with the new rules, so once he gets passed us, it's like, 'Ole!' Let him go by. Hopefully, [Haywood's return] helps us out."

Haywood said he can only do so much. "I definitely feel like I can block a couple of shots and help us out," he said. "We just can't let guys continue to attack the basket. [Wade] scored 37 off all layups from what I could see. We have to force him to be a jump shooter and give the Daddy as much attention as we can on the inside."

O'Neal scored only 13 points in 27 minutes against the Wizards and is averaging just 15.3 points this season for the Heat (3-0) while recovering from a sore hamstring.

As O'Neal works his way back, Wade is averaging 28.7 points and 7.7 assists after three games and recently was named Eastern Conference player of the week. "When he breaks us down, it's just, forget it," Jordan said of Wade.

So has the focus changed from stopping O'Neal to stopping Wade?

"Soon as I say that, Shaq is going to get 45," Jordan said. "Going into the [first] game, it's like, 'How do you stop Shaq? What are you going to do?' Now, coming out of that game, you're like, 'How do you stop Wade?' "

Brendan Haywood, fresh off a suspension and contract extension, will play his first game of the season tonight, against Shaquille O'Neal and Miami.