He's almost there.
O'Neal went through an entire practice on Wednesday, his first
time playing full-court, five-on-five since the Nov. 19 procedure
to repair torn cartilage. And he could make his comeback Thursday,
when the Heat host the Indiana Pacers.
"We'll see where I'm at in the morning, how I feel and make a
decision," O'Neal said.
O'Neal has missed 33 of Miami's 37 games this season -- and,
largely because they've been without O'Neal, the defending NBA
champions have a sluggish 17-20 record. But the Heat haven't had
their full team together at any point this season, either.
With O'Neal on the cusp of returning, that's about to change.
"He did full contact, full workout, up and down, did everything
everybody did," Heat interim coach Ron Rothstein said. "This is
the first time, full-team, five-on-five, up-and-down. It went good.
He's got a ways to go yet, but it was encouraging."
Looking fit and considerably lighter -- Heat guard Jason Kapono
said O'Neal's oft-scrutinized weight is currently 235 pounds, which
is probably about 90 pounds away from reality -- the 13-time
All-Star center ran the floor well and was his customary physical
self during practice, teammates said.
If O'Neal returns on Thursday, he could face what may be a
depleted Indiana roster. The Pacers swung an eight-player trade
with Golden State on Wednesday afternoon, sending Al Harrington,
Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to the
Warriors for Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod, and it's unknown if any of the new Indiana players will be
in Miami and ready to play Thursday night.
Yet potential matchups are truly secondary to the Heat right
now. They simply want to see O'Neal back on the floor.
"He looked good," backup center Earl Barron said. "He was
banging around. His strength, his mobility, the way he was moving,
it all looked real good."
And for the first time this season, so does the Heat's medical
Miami has endured a litany of physical issues so far this year.
Point guard Jason Williams was slowed while he recovered from
offseason knee surgery. Reigning NBA finals MVP Dwyane Wade has
missed some time with a sprained wrist, forwards James Posey and
Antoine Walker were deactivated earlier this month because they
didn't meet a team-mandated body fat standard, and coach Pat Riley
is out indefinitely while recovering from knee surgery and a hip
"If I had to pick a part of the season where we would falter,
it'd be the beginning," center Alonzo Mourning said.
With O'Neal set to return, it will only help Miami's fortunes,
which seem to already be changing.
Wade has recovered from his wrist problem and led Miami to a 4-1
record in the final five games of its Western swing. Posey and
Walker are back in the fray, and Riley's recovery is reportedly
Getting O'Neal back will, eventually, send Mourning back to
reserve status -- something he'll apparently embrace.
"Trust me, I'm anxiously awaiting him to come back," Mourning
said. "But I want him to come back right ... and for the long
haul, for the rest of the year."
That's O'Neal's plan too, which is why he's being cautious. With
45 regular-season games left, he doesn't see the sense in returning
before the knee is truly ready.
"I'm very anxious to be out there with the guys," O'Neal said.
"But I want to be at 1,000 percent so I can help them and not slow
down the process."