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Old problem continues to plague O'Neal in Heat loss
A Charity Case

By Brad Friedman

DALLAS, June 8 -- The Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of The Finals Thursday night, but in some ways, one could say the Heat defeated themselves.

Miami connected on just 7-of-19 attempts from the charity stripe in a free throw shooting performance Heat coach Pat Riley characterized as "horrendous." Shaquille O'Neal, the only Miami player other than guard Dwyane Wade to get to the line, shot just 1-for-9.

"Throughout my career I know that if I want my team to win a championship, I have to step up to the line and hit them," O'Neal said, "and I will."

O'Neal owns a career .528 free throw percentage in his 13 NBA seasons, and has struggled with his free throws even more significantly in this year's playoffs, converting only 54-of-134 (.403) heading into Thursday's game.

Shaq's hoping for a better performance at the free throw line in Game 2 Sunday.
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

When Miami narrowed the Mavericks' advantage to three points with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, a few of O'Neal's seven missed free throws at the time could have made up for the difference.

"(I) probably just (was) thinking about it a little too much," said O'Neal, who hit his first free throw with less than a minute left in the game. "You know, we've still got a lot of opportunities to win a game, on Sunday, we're going to look for me to shoot a little bit better."

Teammate Antoine Walker tried to brush aside any concerns about the All-Star center who's won three rings already.

"He's fine," Walker said. "I'm not worried about that. He's made so many big free throws throughout the playoffs, that's going to come in time as he continues to get more comfortable at the line, he'll be fine."

If championship teams do the little things, then perhaps Dallas has the makings of a championship team. The Mavericks overcame 7-of-28 shooting from the field from Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard, in part because of their 20-of-26 (.769) conversion at the line.

"I think when we lose," said Heat point guard Jason Williams, "It's all our fault."

Wade Gets Back Up

Wade, who was hospitalized Friday because of a sinus infection that forced him to carry box of tissues by his side as recently as Wednesday's media availability, looked like his old self in Game 1 of The Finals.

The Miami guard played in Game 6 of the East Finals despite his hospitalization earlier in the day, but absent was much of the explosiveness that earned him the nickname "Flash."

Against the Mavericks, Wade lit up the scoreboard as quick as a lightning bolt, converting 6-of-7 from the field in the first quarter by consistently getting in front of defenders.

The All-Star cooled off in the second quarter, failing to hit a field goal, but found his rhythm again in the third quarter, recording 10 of Miami's 24 points.

For the game, Wade tallied 28 points, four steals, six rebounds, six assists, one block and two monster dunks.

When asked about a particularly hard spill Wade took during the contest, Pat Riley could only say, "He falls eight times, gets up nine," in reference to the former Marquette guard's marketing slogan with Converse.

Wade was knocked around more than just once during the contest, but Riley added he didn't expect any of the bumps and bruises Wade suffered Thursday night to be serious enough to affect him in Game 2.

Pound the Ball Inside

Despite O'Neal's struggles at the free throw line, the 7-1 center proved nearly unstoppable with the ball around the basket. O'Neal made 8-of-11 of his field goal attempts, several of which came on baskets he created for himself off offensive rebounds and loose balls.

When O'Neal did collect feeds from teammates in the post, he often found himself the target of a double team many of which he passed out of, thus helping limit his shot attempts.

"Yeah, we obviously saw the Eastern Conference Finals and he was so great and so dominant there, they tried to play him one on one," Dirk Nowitzki said. "You know, we try to mix it up a little bit, come a little bit, play him one on one and then come again. That's what you've got to do is keep great players off guard. I thought we looked frozen up a little bit at the beginning and we kept mixing it up on Shaq in the second half and that was big."

If there is one adjustment O'Neal's teammates know they have to make for Game 2 without watching the game film yet, it is ensuring their center gets more touches Sunday night.

"We have to step it up a little bit and make sure we get the ball to Shaq a little bit more. 11 attempts isn't enough for him," said Walker.

"If it was up to me," Williams said, "I'd go to him every time."