Shaq's promise to Miami almost a reality
MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade was in the hospital, and Shaunie O'Neal was rightly concerned.
The biggest game of the Miami Heat's season -- maybe the biggest in franchise history -- was hours away. Wade, the team's leading scorer, had IVs pumping fluids into his body, the Detroit Pistons' confidence was growing by the second, and memories of Miami's missed chance in 2005 crept into her head.
With a kiss, her husband assured her everything would be fine.
"It's done," Shaquille O'Neal told his wife. Sure enough, his dominant 28-point, 16-rebound, five-block effort fueled Miami's 95-78 win over the Pistons on Friday, and carried the Heat to the NBA's championship round for the first time.
Looking every bit like a three-time MVP of the NBA Finals, O'Neal promised his team before the sixth game of the Eastern Conference title series that if he got the ball, good things would happen.
That promise was kept, as O'Neal controlled the game throughout, hitting 12 of his 14 shots.
Now, he's four wins from keeping another promise -- the one he made at his welcome party two summers ago, when he told thousands of Heat fans he would bring a championship to Miami. The Heat will open the Finals on Thursday night at Dallas, which wrapped up the Western Conference finals Saturday night with a Game 6 victory over Phoenix.
"We've just got to keep hope alive," O'Neal said. "We don't want to just get to the Finals. We want to win the whole thing. ... Now we have the opportunity to do that."
And Heat center Alonzo Mourning, a longtime adversary before becoming O'Neal's teammate and eventual close friend, said Miami intends to ride Shaq's shoulders to that title.
"We went into the season, we started this season, with one goal and that's a championship goal," said Mourning, a 13-year veteran now headed to his first Finals. "Not an Eastern Conference goal. A championship goal. And we are going to work very hard to prepare ourselves for whoever comes out of the West."
The work resumes Sunday. Miami took Saturday off to rest and recover from the Detroit series, giving Wade another day to battle the flu-like virus that ravaged him so badly Friday that he spent seven hours in a South Florida hospital getting treatment.
The Heat are expected to practice at home through Tuesday, then fly to Dallas for Game 1 of the Finals.
"We've had a lot of near misses, unlucky bounces, suspensions," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "We've had very good teams that I thought were championship contenders. ... But ever since Shaquille O'Neal showed up on the scene, this team has been a legitimate contender, and we have put pieces around him."
With Wade hurting, those pieces came through Friday in fine fashion. And while Riley gets much of the credit for making those moves, many of them probably couldn't have happened without a major O'Neal sacrifice.
He could have made $30.6 million this season, and commanded more in a long-term deal with the Heat. Instead, he opted out of his existing contract, agreeing to play for $20 million a year for five seasons -- and freeing up a ton of payroll room for Miami to start dealing.
"Shaquille can name his price," his agent, Perry Rogers, said at the time. "And the price he named was winning."
Jason Williams was one of the new faces that O'Neal wanted and Riley could afford to acquire; he had 21 points in the Game 6 clincher on 10-for-12 shooting (after a 10-for-10 start) and six assists.
Antoine Walker was another newcomer; he hit three 3-pointers Friday.
James Posey was new; he had 11 rebounds in the win.
Gary Payton was summoned; he had six points in the final win over Detroit, and has been a stellar backup in the playoffs.
The moves have been scrutinized for months. But O'Neal always insisted that things would work out, as long as Miami played to its capability. He was right, and the Game 7 loss to Detroit in the East finals last season has finally been atoned for.
"Means a lot that I have the opportunity to get here," O'Neal said. "And I feel we had the opportunity last year. We were 1 minute away. But the pains we went through this summer, the new moves that Pat made, just made us hungrier and made us stronger."
So now, O'Neal gets his chance at a fourth ring. He knows he'll be a Hall of Famer, knows his legend is secure as one of the game's most dominant players. And still, he wants more.
"I said it about six years ago," O'Neal said. "When I started getting older, I wanted my legacy to be about winning championships. ... It's not over. We've still got a lot of work to do."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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