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O'Neal practices with Heat before finals
Updated: 2005-05-22 09:57

MIAMI - Shaquille O'Neal's availability for the start of the Eastern Conference finals was shrouded in mystery Saturday, his bruised right thigh still a source of concern. However, the Detroit Pistons aren't necessarily believing the story.

O'Neal practiced with the Miami Heat on Saturday, participating in some 5-on-5, full-contact, full-court basketball for the first time in 11 days. He was held out of some later portions of the workout, a move designed so that he wouldn't overtax the sore muscle that has bothered him for five weeks.

Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal talks to the media Saturday, May 21, 2005 in Miami, after a Heat practice session. The Heat will play the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal talks to the media Saturday, May 21, 2005 in Miami, after a Heat practice session. The Heat will play the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. [AP]
Still, he was noncommittal about being ready for Monday's Game 1 with the Pistons, saying he "hopefully" would be in the Heat starting lineup against the defending NBA champions.

"We just have to keep playing well," said O'Neal, who hasn't played since Game 2 of the East semis with Washington. "I don't want this to be about me. I haven't been out there for a couple games, and the team has been playing well. If I play, we're going to do the same thing. If I don't, we're going to do the same thing."

Odds are that O'Neal will play Monday. The Heat will practice lightly Sunday, and O'Neal is expected to participate again — unless he wakes up to find the injury has worsened.

"We'll anxiously await (Sunday) and see how he feels," Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said.

Meanwhile, the Pistons — who ended Shaq's quest for a fourth NBA title last season, beating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games for the league championship — steadfastly believe the 7-foot-1, 327-pound force will be raring to go when the series opens.

"That's what Shaq wants y'all to think, that he's hurting," Pistons forward Ben Wallace said. "Shaq is going to be ready to play. Don't keep feeding into that. There's nothing wrong with Shaq."

Added Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace: "It doesn't matter if he's 100 percent, 55 percent, he's still going to demand that double team and special attention. To me, he's the greatest player on earth."

O'Neal was injured April 17 when he was inadvertently kneed by Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal while defending a drive to the basket. He hasn't been the same since, yet still averaged 18 points and 8.2 rebounds in Miami's first six playoff games.

The two games he missed against Washington were the first playoff contests he sat out in his career, and being a spectator left him feeling a bit depressed — even though Miami won both games to remain the lone unbeaten team in this year's NBA playoffs.

"This is the time when I try to raise my game a little and I've been limited because of a freak injury," said O'Neal, who has career playoff averages of 26.8 points and 12.7 rebounds. "I've been kind of down because this is new to me."

Teammates gave his return to the practice floor solid marks, saying he looked rested and ready.

"He looks fine. He did everything that we did out there," Heat forward Eddie Jones said. "He looks good. ... This is one of those series where you've got to have your dominant player against a great defensive team."

The series is one of those clash-of-styles matchups, with Detroit excelling on the defensive end and Miami finding success turning Dwyane Wade loose and outscoring opponents.

Miami is averaging 106.5 points on 51.1 percent shooting so far in the playoffs, with Wade averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists in the eight games. Detroit yielded its first two playoff opponents, Philadelphia and Indiana, just 84.4 points per game on 41.5 percent shooting.

If O'Neal isn't healthy and on the floor, then all of Detroit's defensive energies will be focused on Wade. And on April 10, with O'Neal sidelined by a stomach virus, the Pistons held Wade to five points in 21 frustration-filled minutes and beat the host Heat, 80-72.

That Pistons win — Miami's lone home defeat in its last 25 games — proves how critical having O'Neal on the floor is to Miami's championship chances.

"The true test will be how I feel tomorrow," O'Neal said. "But today was a good day. Guys were playing hard. Guys were focused. And we'll be ready, one way or another."

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