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ON THE EASTERN SIDE of the fence, where the grass really is a little greener, the Miami Heat is realizing that even a fraction of Shaq is better than no Shaq at all. By week's end, despite being limited to 15.3 points and 26.7 minutes per game by a lingering hamstring injury and consequent foul trouble, Shaquille O'Neal had navigated his new team to a 3-0 start. Even more significant, perhaps, was his positive influence on second-year guard Dwyane Wade, who busted out with Kobe-like recitals of 21, 28 and 37 points, the last coming in Miami's 118-106 win at Washington last Saturday.
O'Neal used to bristle when Bryant took over games at his expense--"We're not playing smart," he would complain--but in his new time zone Shaq has expressed only gratitude to Wade for sharing the burden. Though O'Neal looks relatively svelte after trimming down to 326 pounds, Heat coach Stan Van Gundy has been cautious about overtaxing his big man's strained left hamstring. "[With my] one bad wheel, [Stan's] not going to call a lot of plays for me," says O'Neal. He perks up when it's noted that Wade is fast making up ground on his more celebrated NBA classmates, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. "It's all hype and all marketing," O'Neal says. Delivering yet another veiled shot at Bryant, who jumped to the NBA from high school, he adds, "[Wade] did it the right way: He went to college."
Wade looks as if he's up to the challenge of helping O'Neal take on Detroit and Indiana at the top of the East. As Shaq spent 21 minutes on the bench in Saturday's win, Wade slalomed, hopped and 360ed his way to the hole while fending off the challenges of fellow 22-year-old Gilbert Arenas (27 points), who memorably told The Washington Times last summer that "Wade proved he couldn't shoot in the Olympics."
"I was aware of it," Wade says of the dis, but he claimed no special satisfaction after knocking down a couple of jumpers over Arenas. Though Wade is focused on improving his range, he intends to exploit the space created by the double-teaming of Shaq and to attack the basket rather than pulling up for perimeter shots.
Although the Heat gave up three starters to acquire O'Neal, it appears to be a surprisingly deep team. Former All-Star Eddie Jones remains an excellent third scoring option, as he proved with a scorching quartet of three-pointers while putting up 15 points in the last 3:21 on Saturday, helping to turn a one-point game into a runaway win. Shaq is also complemented by other capable scorers--Heat holdover Rasual Butler and newcomers Damon Jones and Wesley Person.
Van Gundy is far more of a type A presence on the sideline than Phil Jackson was, but O'Neal has noticed a less obvious difference between the two coaches. "Phil was very cool, and his style worked," O'Neal says, "but Stan is the same with everybody, and Stan doesn't take any bull." (Shaqologists will detect references to Bryant in that statement too.)
Though Van Gundy has nine new players, he has maintained the team's up-tempo style, giving Miami the option of scoring on the break through Wade or relying on O'Neal, the Godzilla of low-post offense. Provided that Shaq's sore hamstring heals, the Heat should be running deep into May, if not beyond. -- Ian Thomsen