Center not ready as leg woes continue
WASHINGTON -- Shaquille O'Neal sat in a chair in a hotel restaurant Friday afternoon, gently massaging his right thigh with his left hand.
"I'm getting very restless, but I'm not going to do anything to hurt the team," the Miami Heat center said. "I'm going to take my time. If this pain in my leg ever goes away, aye-yi-yi-yi-yi. Forget about it."
O'Neal missed a playoff game for the first time in his career Thursday night, a 102-95 victory that gave the Heat a 3-0 series lead over the Washington Wizards. O'Neal might be a spectator again for Game 4 on Saturday, when his team can complete a sweep that would buy even more rest for his deeply bruised thigh before the start of the Eastern Conference finals.
"I feel a little bit better," O'Neal said. "I want to be out there with the guys, but we'll just have to see."
O'Neal has had little to say in recent days, a reflection of his disappointment that he hasn't been the dominant postseason player of years past. He limped his way to playoff averages of 18 points and 8.2 rebounds, both career-lows, through four games against the New Jersey Nets and two against the Wizards before the doctors finally held him out.
"My guys are carrying me, lifting me. I'll be there one day when they really need me," O'Neal said. "But of course, I'm down."
Over the last six weeks, O'Neal has battled a stomach virus and bruises in both thighs, although he said his left leg is now fine. He said he has found it difficult to watch himself on tape.
"It's not me. That's Shawn Bradley and Gheorghe Muresan, mixed in one," he said.
O'Neal said he's talked to football players who have had similar injuries, but he has no real idea when he'll be healthy again. The Heat have held their own -- 7-0 in the playoffs -- without the big man at his best, but he'll almost certainly be needed in the rounds to come.
"We can't win it all," Alonzo Mourning said, "unless the big fellow's on the floor."
Mourning has answered the call during O'Neal's struggles, scoring 14 points with 13 rebounds and four blocks Thursday night. The 35-year-old kidney transplant recipient was starting his first playoff game since 2001, and he badly wants the NBA title that's always eluded him.
"I'm battle-scarred," Mourning said. "I know what it feels to hurt, and I don't want to feel that way anymore at all. We've got a tremendous opportunity to do something special this year, and I plan on doing everything possible in my means to try to help this organization accomplish that goal. I've made a tremendous amount of sacrifice to be in this situation, and I want to reap some rewards at the end of it all."
Other than O'Neal's health, the biggest question remaining in this series is whether the Wizards have any fight left. No NBA team has won a series after trailing 3-0, and morale took the biggest hit possible with a home loss with O'Neal not playing for the other team.
The Wizards, like the Heat, opted not to practice Friday, although Washington coach Eddie Jordan did have a film review session with the players to set a tone for Saturday.
"It's a chance for us to show that we have a lot of mettle, to show that we are still a good team at home," Jordan said. "We're going to show that we've learned some lessons, and that we're going to compete to the end. We hope that tomorrow night is symbolic of what our season has been about, dealing with adversity, fighting and winning at home when people don't think we can achieve something."
Jordan said the chances are "very slim" that forward Etan Thomas will play. Thomas strained an abdominal muscle in Game 2 and sat out Game 3.
Meanwhile, at the Heat's hotel, Mourning and O'Neal discussed their futures. Asked if he would think about retiring if Miami wins the title, Mourning said he would have to discuss that with O'Neal.
"We'll talk about it," O'Neal said. "I might want him to go out when I go out in two or three."
Why two or three years?
"Because I want to break a couple of people's records," O'Neal said. "I want you guys to remember me. Right now you guys just know my name. That's not good enough. I want you to remember my name, and when you hear it I want you go to 'Wow.' "
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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