Friday, May 13, 2005

Shaquille O’Neal has been known, among other things, as Shaq Daddy, Shaq Diesel and the Big Aristotle. Last night the Miami Heat center, arguably the biggest name in the NBA, went by another label: “DND — Bruised Right Thigh,” which was written next to his name in the box score.

The letters meant “Did Not Dress,” in a basketball sense. Otherwise, he was well turned out, resplendent in yards of tan cloth while seated at the end of the Heat bench, watching his teammates get by just fine without him at MCI Center.

With veteran Alonzo Mourning starting in place of Shaq, Miami beat the Wizards 102-95 to take a 3-0 lead in the series. As in Game 2, all five starters scored in double-figures and again, Heat guard Dwyane Wade — 31 points, nine rebounds, six assists — was brilliant.

After helping the Heat to the best record in the Eastern Conference after coming to Miami in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, O’Neal has been slowed throughout the playoffs by bruises to both thighs, although it’s the right one proving the most troublesome.

No problem. Filling the Heat’s middle was Mourning, the former Georgetown star, an 12-year vet who started the season with the New Jersey Nets, was traded to Toronto but never reported and returned on March1 to Miami, where he played from 1995 to 2002.

“You have to give the front-office credit for making that move,” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Without that move, I don’t know where we’d be tonight.”

If anyone believed Mourning would feel any pressure, consider that he missed the entire 2002-03 season with a kidney ailment and underwent a transplant in December 2003, only to return this season.

A seven-time All-Star, twice the NBA defensive player of the year, Mourning was clearly peeved before the game at questions about how he might deal with filling in for Shaq.

“It’s not like I started playing this [darn] game or something,” he snapped.

Asked how long he could play, Mourning again treated the question as an insult.

“Man, you all sit on the side of the court and watch this game tonight,” he said, walking away.

Mourning played 35 minutes. He had 14 points and 13 rebounds, blocked four shots (although it seemed like more) and altered several others. In the Heat’s two wins in Miami, Mourning played 16 and eight minutes, respectively, and totaled 10 points and seven rebounds.

He had 10 points and nine rebounds in the first half alone last night.

“I’ve got to take at least a good hour or two to gather myself,” a much cheerier Mourning said after the game. “My adrenaline is still flowing. It’s amazing to play with this group of guys. This is a resilient bunch of guys.

“People said this is a one-man, a two-man team. Guys have stepped up countless times and met the challenge. I told them before the game, nobody in this world has ever accomplished anything without being challenged.”

O’Neal’s absence also meant that Michael Doleac, the little-used, third-string center, had to contribute. Doleac played 13 minutes, holding down the fort when Mourning rested.

Wade, who had 31 points, 15 assists and seven rebounds in Game 2 on Tuesday, started out last night with five first-quarter turnovers. He said it was probably his worst half of the year.

“I was confused early,” said Wade, who keeps living up to his nickname, “Flash,” bestowed by Shaq. “I was in-between, I was getting up in the air, throwing the ball away. I wasn’t playing the way I usually played.”

Then he heeded the urgings of his teammates — “They told me to take over the game,” he said — as well as O’Neal’s pregame advice.

“He told me I was the best player on the floor,” Wade said, “and to go out and play like this is your team and lead the team to a win.”

The Heat as usual got help from other sources. There was Eddie Jones and Damon Jones with 16 points each, forward Udonis Haslem with 12 points and 12 rebounds and reserve guard Keyon Dooling flipping an improbable shot into the basket from behind the backboard.

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