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Resurgence of O'Neal giving Hawks big problem

By Matt Winkeljohn, for
Posted Apr 25 2009 11:59PM

MIAMI -- It first sounded like a great warm and fuzzy story when Jermaine O'Neal said Saturday that his brother had called and suggested that he start acting like he enjoyed basketball again.

Don't believe that O'Neal's resurgence can be so simply explained.

After Miami throttled the Hawks 107-78 for a second straight game to take a 2-1 series lead, the record should be set straight.

As the Hawks grope for answers to Miami's new twin-fulcrum offense with O'Neal in the middle, and, of course, Dwyane Wade outside, the truth is a lot more went into O'Neal's 22 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks than a pep talk from Clifford O'Neal.

That didn't hurt, but O'Neal's back-to-back big games (he had 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and four blocks in a 108-93 Game 2 win) were the fruit of great and multi-tiered diligence -- and a pain in the Hawks' backsides.

Wade (29 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, four blocks) fills the highlight reels, and stories about him could fill many books.

But the man in the middle is giving Atlanta more than it can read.

"Jermaine O'Neal has been the problem in terms of us having to double-team, and [still] try to get out to shooters," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson.

O'Neal has battled injuries in recent years, most significantly a right knee that has bothered him greatly the past few months. Yet the 13-year-veteran said Saturday, "I feel better than I've felt in two or three years."

So rehab is paying off.

There's more.

Getting back up to speed, or near the pace that helped O'Neal routinely wreak havoc a few years ago when he played with the Pacers, has been about working hard to catch up physically while exercising patience since joining the team in a Feb. 13 trade with Toronto.

"[Heat president Pat] Riley and coach [Erik] Spoelstra have done a good job talking to me ... telling me it wasn't going to be easy," O'Neal said. "It's human nature to be disappointed, or hard on yourself because you want to do more.

"When you're not really comfortable inside of an offense you tend to overthink things. Now, I'm pretty comfortable with the sets."

In some games since O'Neal joined the Heat, he has looked like much less a player than just a few years ago. He averaged 13 points and 5.3 rebounds since joining the team, a far cry from -- for example -- the 20.8 and 10.2 he averaged for the Pacers in 2002-'03.

But he's blending in a big way now. The timing couldn't be better.

"Offensively, he is playing a very patient-aggressive game," Spoelstra said. "He is doing both things at the same time ... allowing [Atlanta guards] to either come down and dig or double-team and make plays, and if they don't he is being aggressive and taking a one-on-one matchup.

"This is why you make a deal like that. When the game slows down, in the Playoffs, and you need to have a paint or post prescense, this is his value. He's seizing the opportunity right now."

When the game slows down in the Playoffs, the Hawks are in trouble, and when the Heat make 46.9 percent of their shots and turn the ball over just nine times, Atlanta has problems getting out and running, as the Hawks prefer.

When they double down as much as they have in the past two games, the Heat are making them pay, hitting 12-of-23 3-pointers Saturday after making 15-for-29 Wednesday.

The Hawks counted on Wade doing what he's doing. This guy O'Neal, though, has mandated that changes must come for Atlanta to even this series out Monday, or they'll go home trailing 3-1.

"I know we are probably going to stay away from doubling him as much as let our big guys try to play him more one-on-one, and stay with some of their shooters," Woodson said.

Atlanta big men Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia had better eat their Wheaties.

O'Neal, who will spend about six weeks this summer working with Chicago specialist Tim Grover to re-build his strength and explosiveness and then more time in Las Vegas on specific skills, welcomes the chance to go solo from time to time.

"I've dealt with a lot of injuries the last few years. So just getting back to respectability is what I've concentrated on the most," he said. "I know when healthy, I can score against anybody.

"Right now, it's about playing great team defense ... and having fun out there. When you don't have fun, you tend not to play well."

That's why Clifford called. His brother's body language was at least as out of whack as his body had been earlier.

"My brother called me after Game 1, and asked when was the last time I enjoyed a game with emotion," O'Neal said. "That was really my calling card in Indiana. I really haven't done that because I haven't really felt comfortable."

He said he feels like he fits in now, though, and all the extra work he's put in working on details, and postgame preparation with assistant Bob McAdoo are paying off.

Given that, and the fact the postseason is here, Clifford O'Neal is not the only one calling his brother's number.

The Heat are calling more frequently, too.

"It's not like he's finished," Spoelstra said. "Everybody is talking about how he's a finished player. He's only 30 years old, and as you can see at this time of year the veteran guys ... are stepping up."

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