With their 75-72 road win in New York, the Miami Heat managed to win for the first time since last April.
But Heat fans shouldn't celebrate just yet.
Despite the final score, the game raised concerns for the rest of the season, most notably about the ineffective play of Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal’s decline is staggering—and doesn’t bode well for the Heat’s playoff chances.
Against the Knicks, the Heat got the ball to Shaq in prime post position a total of 22 times. Most of those times, O’Neal was defended by Eddy Curry and double-teamed by an assortment of help defenders, usually before he began his dribbles.
In the first quarter, O’Neal’s five touches in the paint yielded four missed hook shots and a non-shooting foul on Curry. The first team's three possessions were centered around Shaq in the post—and by the time Pat Riley tweaked the strategy, Miami was trailing 6-0.
Shaq picked up the production a bit in the second quarter, picking up an easy dunk, a baseline spin and layup, and a smart kickout, re-post, and layup.
Still, for the half, the Big Diesel only managed six points on 3-8 shooting in his nine post touches—while being defended by one of the worst defensive centers in the NBA, and while facing constant double-teams that left teammates open all over the floor.
Where were the cross-court passes out of double teams, or the punishing power moves that overwhelm opponents?
Where was the invincible Shaq of old?
Only early in the second half did that Shaq appear. In eight third-quarter possessions, he tallied eight points on 3-3 shooting with an assist, a turnover, and two crisp passes which didn’t lead to points.
The bad news is that the Heat offense became overly-reliant on Shaq’s post successes, and lost the ball and player movement that allowed them to score 25 points in the first quarter while Shaq was ineffective.
While Shaq went 6-7 in the second and third quarters, the Heat managed only a combined 27 points in the same span.
Shaq struggled again in the fourth quarter, going 1-2 with a turnover—and almost committing a second.
For the game, he shot 7-13 on his 22 post possessions, drew three non-shooting fouls, and added an assist with two turnovers. He created 18 total points on the night.
For all the that, though, the most telling stat signaling Shaq’s decline is his number of free throw attempts against New York:
Shaq no longer intimidates opponents, and he no longer intimidates referees. As it stands, he looks to have finally sunk into the realm of the mortal.
Also, Shaq’s presence in the paint attracted defenders keeping his Heat teammates from attacking the offensive glass, though he did use his bulk well in shielding off Curry and grabbing a handful of long rebounds.
That said, he was unable to defend Curry one-on-one, and his rotations were horrendously slow. And while he did pick up three blocks, two were on crowded layup attempts by Renaldo Balkman and David Lee—where the Knick forwards didn’t have ample space to go up with any force.
Shaq’s defense could become more and more problematic as the season goes on, especially against teams with agile forwards and penetrating guards. Toronto and Chicago come to mind.
The only good news?
As Dwyane Wade returns from injury, the Heat offense should be crisper off the ball, allowing Shaq to be more successful in finding teammates—and allowing him to operate against fewer double teams as opponents focus on Wade.
So how did the Heat steal a road win in New York?
Udonis Haslem was beastly around both baskets, and kept the Heat in the game with his screens, his defense, and his midrange jumpers. He played super glue defense on David Lee, brought non-stop hustle, and kept Miami alive during drive spells purely because of his energy.
Most importantly, in the final three minutes, Haslem tipped in a basket on an offensive rebound and turned a loose ball into a dunk. He also made two outstanding defensive plays, rotating and forcing a Stephon Marbury turnover and poking away a pass to Eddy Curry with only 10 seconds in the game.
Jason Williams was effective all game off high screens targeting Eddy Curry. He was also Miami's only consistent shooting threat—and hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline with 19 seconds left.
Beyond Haslem and Williams, the Heat won because...
- Penny Hardaway played the best help defense he’s played in his entire career.
- Hardaway’s unselfish instincts allowed him to notch six assists.
- Despite missing seven out of his nine jumpers...despite giving up on every screen he ran into...despite having all his baskets come as a result of one-on-one breakdowns...Ricky Davis made a handful of offensive plays when the Heat offense was mired in quicksand—and played lock-down defense on Jamal Crawford in the fourth quarter.
- Alonzo Mourning’s screen defense was exceptional, especially over the last few minutes.
- The Heat defensive rotations (minus those of Shaq and Davis) were timely and well executed.
So what will the Heat need to do to sustain any kind of future success?
For starters, they desperately need a creative guard scorer.
Davis was a bust for the first three quarters, and Hardaway has no juice left in his legs. Chris Quinn is a scrub, and the only unselfish pass Smush Parker made was a fast break jump pass to Quentin Richardson.
In a perfect world, none of those guards would play for winning teams. Parker and Davis will lose more games than they’ll win, and Hardaway and Quinn can’t do anything right now.
But given how limited the Heat roster is, Hardaway should be kept as a fourth guard, Quinn should be banished to the Developmental League, and two among Davis, Parker, and Dorell Wright should be traded for some kind of dependable guard scorer.
Maybe one of the Rockets leftover point guards would suffice for Davis and Wright? Maybe Luke Ridnour or Earl Watson can be pried out of Seattle?
Barring any significant roster surgery, only Dwyane Wade’s consistent brilliance can propel the Heat to a low-seeded playoff berth.