- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

Less than 48 hours after ending nearly a quarter-century span without winning a playoff series, the Washington Wizards’ immediate reward is an even bigger hurdle.

Standing in the Wizards’ way, beginning this afternoon in Miami, is the hulking figure of Shaquille O’Neal and his teammates on the well-rested Miami Heat.

To survive the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Wizards must step up sharply. The Heat won all four of their meetings during the first six weeks of the regular season, and none was close. Miami, whose 59-23 record was the East’s best, won the games by an average of 12.5 points.

The most lopsided was a 106-83 thrashing on Dec.13. In that game the Wizards’ “Big Three” of Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas shot a combined 15-for-57 from the field.

Conversely, O’Neal, whom the Heat acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers last July for forwards Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and draft picks, was unstoppable on his way to 40 points (15-for-23 shooting), 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.

And although the 7-foot-1, 340-pound O’Neal didn’t post numbers like that every night, there isn’t a single Washington player who doesn’t recognize the impact the 12-time All-Star is capable of having in this series.

“There ain’t nobody in the league that guards Shaq,” All-Star point guard Arenas said. “We have a couple of bigs that can contain him, but Shaq is one of the top 50 players of all time, one of the greatest centers ever.

“Last time I checked you don’t guard Shaq,” Arenas continued. “He’s the best player pound-for-pound in the league. If he wanted to he could score 50 every night, but he’s not a selfish player. We have to contain everybody else. It’s going to take all 14 players to contain Shaq.”

While O’Neal is physically the biggest obstacle in the Wizards’ way, second-year guard Dwyane Wade is the Heat’s hottest player. After a breakout season in which he thrived playing alongside O’Neal, Wade averaged 26.3 points as the Heat swept New Jersey in the first round.

“The Flash is rolling, playing real well off of Shaq this season,” Arenas said of Wade, a player whom he chided about his poor shooting in the Olympics but has a strong friendship with. “They’ve got good weapons.”

Washington’s players believe they have improved substantially since the teams last played almost five months ago. They relished being in the role of underdog against the Bulls and — after earning the franchise’s first playoff-series victory since 1982 — are doing so again against a Miami team that nobody else believes they have a chance against.

“I wouldn’t say we can’t beat them — why can’t we?” Hughes said. “We have just as much talent as they have. It’s just all about putting it all together and being consistent.

“You know, it’s fun to change minds,” Hughes continued. “We came into the season after winning 25 games [in 2003-04] and changed a lot of people’s minds. It’s citywide, and hopefully we can make it worldwide and change the perception of what we do.”

One thing that could be in the Wizards’ favor today will be the Heat’s lack of combat since they dispatched the Nets one week ago today. The Wizards have been playing in a rhythm and getting off to good starts during that time.

Meanwhile, excitement is high in the Washington area. That was evident Friday night in the waning moments of the Wizards’ 94-91 win over the Bulls, when the chant of “We want Shaq!” began to rattle the walls at sold-out MCI Center. But O’Neal issued an ominous warning yesterday.

“Be careful what you ask for,” O’Neal said. “We’ll be ready. We know what type of team we’re going against. We just have to go out and take care of our business and do what we practice every day.”

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