Heat needs O'Neal to play large

MIAMI — MIAMI -- The Miami Heat departed Dallas confused, with its franchise big man muttering.

"I got five shots the whole night," Shaquille O'Neal said as he headed to the team bus late Sunday, after bypassing the mandatory media session, "five shots."


The question now, as the NBA Finals arrive for the first time in South Florida, is whether the Heat has a shot against the Mavericks after falling behind 0-2 in the best-of-seven series.

As has been the case since O'Neal's arrival in the 2004 offseason, the Heat's hopes will only be as large as O'Neal's performance.


Rather than deal with the simmering issues of his team's offensive direction, coach Pat Riley chose to allow his players to stew on their own yesterday, canceling practice.

Although O'Neal remains frustrated by his lack of opportunities, after his 2-of-5, five-point performance in Sunday's 99-85 loss, he is not viewed as blameless.

"We have to do a better job of getting him the ball," backup center Alonzo Mourning said. "And he has to do a better job of getting in position. He knows that."

The ugly reality is O'Neal's scoring total in Game 2 was his lowest in 190 career playoff games.

The recent reality is that the performance hardly was unique.

Of O'Neal's three single-digit career playoff games, two have come this postseason, when factoring in his eight points in a Game 3 loss in the first round in Chicago.

Consistency stands as an issue not only for a Heat offense that has generated an average of 82.5 points in this series, but also for O'Neal.

The two factors, of course, are intertwined.


It is far easier to double-team O'Neal when the supporting players aren't supporting. Beyond some too-little-too-late scoring from forward Antoine Walker, the Heat's offense has been reduced to all-or-nothing from guard Dwyane Wade.

"They know who to stay home on," Riley said, "and they know who to leave open."

After Sunday's loss, Mourning said, "No one expected us to come out and play the way we did the past two games."

Then again, perhaps the double-digit defeats were exactly what was to be expected.

Factoring in the Heat's 0-2 regular season against Dallas, the margin of defeat against the Mavericks this season has been 18.3 points in the four meetings.

In some ways, this is starting to look like the last time Riley guided the Heat into the playoffs, when it was routed in a 3-0 sweep by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2001 first round, the last time it had lost consecutive postseason games by double digits.


That was before O'Neal's arrival, before the Heat put its focus on an imposing inside game, a focus that now must be reestablished.

"He's frustrated," Walker said. "He's a guy that likes to get involved in the game."

In bowing out in the conference semifinals and then conference finals the past two seasons, the Heat exited amid questions about the approach of former coach Stan Van Gundy. Now, on a bigger stage, the challenge has grown exponentially for Riley.

Two teams in the previous 59 NBA Finals have recovered from 0-2 to win a title, and no NBA team has recovered from 0-3 to win a postseason series.

Note -- Starting power forward Udonis Haslem has a strained and bruised left shoulder but is expected to be in the starting lineup for tonight's game, the Associated Press reported.

Ira Winderman writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.