Shaq is Back (sort of...5 points and 5 rebounds)Shaquille O'Neal returned to action on Wednesday after missing 35 games while he was rehabilitating his knee injury. He did not start and only played 14 minutes in the Miami Heat's 96-94 overtime loss at Indiana; O'Neal did not play at all in the extra session and finished with five points and five rebounds, shooting 2-6 from the field and 1-2 from the free throw line. Troy Murphy led a balanced Indiana attack with 17 points, while Dwyane Wade had 32 points, eight assists, five rebounds, five steals and three blocked shots for the Heat.
Miami stormed to a 65-45 lead despite O'Neal's minimal contributions but the Pacers mounted a furious rally that started late in the third quarter and extended into the the fourth quarter, transforming that deficit into a 75-74 lead. The Pacers eventually built a six point lead but a pair of three pointers--one by Wade, one by Jason Kapono, whose seems to have a radar lock on the hoop this season--deadlocked the score at 87 and sent the game to overtime. Danny Granger scored on a putback to open the overtime and the Pacers never trailed again.
Obviously, Shaquille O'Neal has to work off a lot of rust and, judging by his severely restricted minutes, he is either still not completely healthy or not in normal game condition--neither of which is unexpected considering how long he has been on the shelf. The significant thing is that O'Neal has returned to action early enough to have a real impact on the Heat's season--which means Pat Riley will probably be back on the bench soon and the other Eastern teams will be sweating bullets soon after that. Right now, the Heat are just barely on the outside of the playoff race in the sorry Eastern Conference and there is plenty of time left for Miami to move up and obtain home court advantage in the first round. There is no dominant team in the East this year, so this Heat team will be right in the thick of the battle for conference supremacy if O'Neal and Wade stay reasonably healthy down the stretch of the season. Every year in April we hear the cliche about the "team that nobody wants to face"--and, according to my completely unscientific research, that team loses in the first round of the playoffs 99.2% of the time (think of George Karl's Nuggets in '05 or Ron Artest's Kings in '06 as two examples of this). If Shaq is standing on two healthy legs in April and Dwyane Wade has gotten up as many times as he has fallen down, Miami will really be the team that nobody wants to face in Eastern Conference playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM