- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

Shaq has been half-a-Shaq in this postseason, if that in the series with the Wizards.

This led to no Shaq in Game 3 last night.

Shaq’s lack of health — two deeply bruised thighs and a 33-year-old body with serious wear — neutralized him in a manner no opponent could after his mobility progressed from bad to worse in the first two games of the series.

His absence was the mother of all elements in a series that in part has become a battle of attrition.

It was the element that fanned a measure of hope in the Wizards, caught as they were in the throes of a shrinking roster and a sinking feeling.

But hope eventually left Fun Street, as the Heat defeated the Wizards 102-95 to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Dwyane Wade controlled Game 3, just as he did Game 2, this time with 31 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

The Wizards led 51-49 after 24 minutes, as the Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes clicked as one for the first time in the series.

Arenas had 12 points and nine assists in the first half, as if attempting to reprise Wade’s 31-point, 15-assist, seven-rebound performance in Game 2.

The Big Three’s supporting cast was slow to arrive.

Jared Jeffries missed his first four field goal attempts of the game, all around the basket, as is his proclivity. If Jeffries ever learns to finish around the basket, his value to the team will skyrocket.

Of course, even in street clothes, Shaq cast his 7-foot-1 over the proceedings, if only as an opportunity to the Wizards.

The prospect of Shaq — aging and wounded — prompted an unnecessary fear.

“I’m not going to say much about where Shaq is now,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said before the game. “I don’t want to light any fires in him.”

No chance of that on this night.

Alonzo Mourning, Shaq’s replacement, is a high-quality backup who came to that lot following a kidney transplant. He remains a force, so long as his minutes are monitored. Mourning certainly put his stamp on the game, posting a double-double, with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

This is perhaps the first conspicuous sign yet of Shaq in decline.

Shaq is not apt to age gracefully, considering the load he was carrying his last two seasons with the Lakers. His weight — one of the great mysteries in Los Angeles — has stayed in the 325-pound range in Miami this season.

Yet he cannot undo the stress he put on his lower body. Lugging around an extra 50 pounds or more accelerated the aging process in Shaq’s lower limbs.

Heat coach Stan Van Gundy was confronted with an unappealing prospect before Game 3 — sit O’Neal and buy him healing time or play him and run the risk of compromising his value in the next series.

Van Gundy has to calibrate the health of O’Neal with a championship run in mind. A loss in the next round would be considered a disappointment in Miami.

The Wizards figured they were in deep trouble after Etan Thomas aggravated his abdominal muscle in Game 2.

The thought of Brendan Haywood and Michael Ruffin as the only defensive antidote to Shaq was unsettling enough to inspire the desperate talk of Kwame Brown’s re-instatement to the team. In the end, it was just that — so much hot air.

It started to come apart on the Wizards after they pushed their lead to 60-52 in the third quarter. The Heat closed on a 27-10 run to lead 79-70 going into the fourth quarter.

The Wizards must have suspected the worst after Keyon Dooling — falling down as he was going out of bounds — flipped the ball high into the air from behind the basket and saw it count for two points. It not only was a lucky shot, it was an illegal shot that should have been waved off by the referees.

No, there was no Shaq. But there was plenty of Wade. Too much Wade.

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