When the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal in the offseason, they hoped the 14-time All-Star could still provide a spark inside and open things up for LeBron James.
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It has taken a little time, but the team is starting to see the desired results.
Coming off his best performance in a Cavaliers uniform, O’Neal looks to help Cleveland win its fourth straight game Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls.
After struggling to slow down Orlando center Dwight Howard while losing last season’s Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers (3-2) felt they needed to add a big man in order to make a run for a title.
With four championship rings and three finals MVP awards won during his brilliant career, O’Neal joined the Cavaliers in a trade from Phoenix.
The future Hall of Famer got off to an uninspiring start with his new club, averaging 9.0 points on 47.2 percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds in his first four games, but looked like vintage Shaq in Tuesday’s 102-90 win over Washington.
The 37-year-old finished with a season-high 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting, easily hitting bank shots and converting hooks. He also had eight rebounds.
“It’s a big plus for me and everyone else,” James said of O’Neal.
James had 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Cavs, who have won three in a row after opening the season with back-to-back losses.
Cleveland has been using the 7-foot-1 O’Neal and 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas together with mixed results. But the pair appear to be getting more comfortable and confident and have the potential to be a matchup nightmare for any team.
Adding James’ playmaking ability to the mix makes things even tougher on opponents.
The reigning league MVP had little trouble scoring against Chicago last season, recording two 40-point games as the Cavs won three of four in the season series.
O’Neal had 18 points and eight rebounds in his only game against the Bulls last season, a 122-111 Suns loss on Jan. 31, and is averaging 22.0 points and 9.0 boards in his last three games against them.
Chicago (2-2) arrives in Cleveland following an impressive 83-81 comeback win over Milwaukee on Tuesday. The Bulls trailed by 18 in the third quarter before rallying behind Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
Rose scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter while Deng finished with 24 and a career-high 20 rebounds.
It was an encouraging performance from Deng, who missed the final 22 regular-season games and the playoffs in 2008-09 with a stress fracture in his right tibia. He finished with 14.1 points per game last season, down from 18.0 over the previous two.
“I’m happy that I’m healthy,” said Deng, who averaged 20.0 points on 52.3 percent shooting in three games against Cleveland in 2008-09. “Happy to be out there playing. … I missed playing. I’m happy I’m out there with my teammates and not out on the side watching them.”
Deng and the Bulls now try to put an end to their road struggles. Chicago has been outscored by an average of 18.0 points in losing both road games this season and is 13-30 away from the United Center since the start of last season.
Breaking out of this funk won’t be easy, though. The Cavs, who are 41-3 at home since last season, have won nine of the last 11 meetings with the Bulls at Quicken Loans Arena.