O'Neal gets Heat season off to quick start
He got the ball on the first possession of the Miami Heat season. Hard dribble. Spin toward the baseline. Shot.
It was the first of many blows O'Neal landed in a 22-point, 12-rebound opening effort offered Wednesday in Miami's 115-93 romp over the New York Knicks. Feeling strong and healthy for the first time in almost three years, O'Neal has been saying for weeks he wants to regain the form that made him a six-time All-Star selection.
Hey, there's a long way to go, but so far, so good.
"I expect to do it every night," O'Neal said. "When you go through some of the issues that I went through with my knee over the 2 1/2 years, you look forward to these nights. This is the first time in 2 1/2, three years where I feel real good, the body is responding great, my movements are great, no knee braces. I've really looked forward to this."
So have the Heat, which goes without saying.
They traded for O'Neal last February, desperate for another low-post presence to help Dwyane Wade. What they got, though, was a player whose knees ached more than he ever acknowledged publicly, who could barely jump or run, impaired so badly that he failed to get more than five rebounds in 14 of the 27 regular-season games he logged with Miami last season.
For a 6-foot-11 player making more than $20 million a year, that simply wasn't going to cut it. Knowing that, he spent the summer leading into his 14th NBA season pushing his body like never before, working with trainer-to-the-NBA-stars Tim Grover in Chicago, changing his diet and rehabbing instead of resting.
"A lot of work in the summertime, a lot of work in camp," O'Neal said.
It paid off. He's clearly slimmer, overcoming a bruised foot in training camp without any long-term setbacks. For at least one night, he found a way to turn back the clock at New York's expense.
Some of O'Neal's stats from the opener were astounding:
- Considering he didn't have any double-digit rebounding nights in his final 22 regular-season games with Miami last season.
- It was the 72nd time in his career he's had at least 22 points and 12 rebounds, but the first since March 25, 2007.
- And of those previous 71 games, how many of those came with O'Neal playing less than 30 minutes? None.
- Here's the really out-of-this-world stat: O'Neal has taken 10 or more field-goal attempts in a game 507 times. In those, he's never shot better than the 10 of 12 (.833) rate he put up against the Knicks.
"I don't care about the numbers - well, actually, I do. I was pretty fired up for the 12 rebounds and I told him as such after the game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's the first thing I looked at. But what I liked about his rebounds were they were up in traffic. People around, he was getting bumped, some 50-50 balls that could have gone either way, and he went up there with two hands, above the crowd, with his length, with his size, with his strength and was able to come down with it."
A year ago, that wasn't going to happen.
He says he shouldn't have played two seasons ago because of knee injuries, then tried to grit his way through them and only made things worse. Once the Heat were eliminated from the opening round of last season's Eastern Conference playoffs by Atlanta, O'Neal took a few days to collect himself, then went to work.
In all, it was 15 weeks, splitting between Miami and Chicago, before camp. Redefining himself, O'Neal called it.
"He put the whole package together," Spoelstra said.
Next up: The Heat play Game 2 of the season on Friday in Indiana, the spot where O'Neal spent eight seasons before going to Toronto ahead of the 2007-08 season.
He says it's the first time he'll have been back to the Pacers' home floor in healthy condition. That's welcome news for Miami, which hasn't won at Indiana since Dec. 31, 2001 - a span of 14 games - and is an unbelievably dismal 5-34 all-time when visiting the Pacers.
"I'm pretty sure they'll get a heavy dosage of me," O'Neal said.