- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MIAMI — Shaquille O’Neal’s vanishing act after Game1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal yesterday disappointed a throng of reporters who were camped in front of his locker awaiting his pearls of wisdom, such as they are.

His disappearance during the third quarter of the Miami Heat’s 105-86 victory against the Washington Wizards had less of an effect.

O’Neal — who finished second to the Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash in the NBA MVP voting to the consternation of teammates, coaches and fans at AmericanAirlines Arena who chanted “MVP! MVP!” at one point — went to the bench with his fourth foul with 8:12 left in the third and stayed there for the rest of the period.

The Heat were so unfazed by his absence that they outscored the Wizards 22-10 in the remainder of the period to take a commanding 82-64 lead.

O’Neal, who still managed to score 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, was replaced by veteran Alonzo Mourning (3-for-4 with seven points in 16 minutes), and Miami clamped down on defense.

“All champions in the past have been great defensive teams,” Mourning said, noting the likes of the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.

“We continued to get stops, and that’s the basis of our game,” guard Damon Jones said. “Defense first, and then take care of the basketball on the offensive end. We were able to do both of those things in the second half, and we built a nice cushion.”

A couple of Heat players played their best when O’Neal was on the bench. While forward Udonis Haslem was scoreless and had three rebounds in the first, second and fourth quarters, he had eight points and four rebounds in the third.

“I just wanted to get into the game, period,” Haslem said. “First half I played six minutes. So when the big fella got out, I knew I had to get on the boards a lot tougher. I just tried to get on the boards and run the floor. … We understand the big fella carries a tremendous load, but there’s not gonna be a slack-off when he’s not on the floor. If anything, we’ve got to kind of pick it up.”

“We just played team defense. They’ve got great players, especially on the perimeter, with [Gilbert] Arenas and [Antawn] Jamison and [Larry] Hughes. It’s not gonna be one guy that guards those guys.”

Dwyane Wade also came through. Wade, the second-year guard playing the Kobe Bryant sidekick role to O’Neal — minus all the soap opera stuff that led to O’Neal’s trade from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer — suffered through a first half in which he made just two of nine shots and had four turnovers.

But Wade, the Heat’s leading scorer in their four-game sweep of the New Jersey Nets in the opening round, had 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting and four assists in the third quarter.

“The first quarter I was just missing shots,” he said. “I know as long as I continue to shoot them, some of them are going to go in. My teammates had all the confidence in the world in me, and I hit some shots. [They] told me to stay aggressive no matter what comes, and that is what I did.”

The Heat bench, led by guard Keyon Dooling’s 15 points, outscored the Wizards’ reserves 36-5. That also offset the lack of playing time for O’Neal, whose postgame escape prevented him from dispensing insight on his tender thighs, which had caused some discomfort in addition to much copy and chatter. Mourning, however, volunteered a medical update.

“He’s still a little sore,” Mourning said. “And rightfully so. That man’s carrying a lot of weight. You’ve got a large building. Something happens to the foundation, it’s gonna sway a little bit. But he knows we’ve got his back. He knows what we’re gonna bring. When we come off the bench we’ve got to be ready to contribute. We all realize that.”

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