Miami wasn't able to count on Shaquille O'Neal for much scoring in its loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in December. Now, he's completely out of the Heat's plans.
After finally trading the declining center, the lowly Heat continue the post-Shaq era Thursday night when they take on the 76ers.
Acquiring O'Neal in a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers on July 14, 2004, helped bring Miami a championship two years later, but trading him to Phoenix on Wednesday was perhaps an inevitable part of its rebuilding process.
The Heat (9-38), who have lost 20 of their last 21 games and have the NBA's worst record, sent O'Neal to the Suns for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks.
"It was a very, very hard decision for me," Miami coach Pat Riley said. "When Shaq came to the team four years ago, I always felt it was forever. We won a championship with him. We wish him nothing but the best. We have to move on with our team. We're rebuilding. This is not the most desirable place to be right now."
The 7-foot-1, 325-pounder, one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, has been plagued by injuries in recent years and turns 36 next month. After finishing with a season-low five points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field in Miami's 96-85 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 26, O'Neal missed the next eight games with left hip bursitis.
He played the following four games, but that injury has kept him sidelined again.
Averaging a career-low 14.2 points per game, O'Neal's 14-year streak as an All-Star came to an end this year. Mark Blount has been starting at center for the Heat - he had 14 points in a 100-95 loss to Detroit on Wednesday night - and he soon will be joined in the frontcourt by Marion.
It's expected that Marion won't make his Miami debut until Sunday against the Lakers. The five-time All-Star is averaging 15.8 points and 9.9 rebounds.
Banks, meanwhile, is purely a role player, averaging 6.2 points in 289 career games.
O'Neal's departure leaves Marion and Dwyane Wade to carry a Miami team that is averaging 88.0 points in its last five games. In December's matchup with the Sixers (19-30), the Heat shot 40.5 percent (34-for-84) from the field, including 1-for-13 from 3-point range.
Miami struggled despite a 27-point effort from Wade. Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala was the game's leading scorer, finishing with a then-season-high 28, and is set to again guard Wade in the key matchup. Both players lead their respective team in scoring, but they're also two of the league's best defenders.
Iguodala added seven rebounds and two assists to help the Sixers beat the Heat in Philadelphia for the 13th time in the teams' last 15 meetings there, while Wade finished with three steals.
On Tuesday night, Iguodala scored 20 points to lead Philadelphia to a 101-96 win over Washington. It was the Sixers' second game of a season-high five-game stretch at home, where they have won two of their last three.
Philadelphia has won three of its last five overall, averaging 102.6 points in that span.
Rookie forward Thaddeus Young has played a big role in the Sixers' offensive surge. The 12th overall pick in last year's draft has started three straight games, and is averaging 14.2 points in his last four contests.
While Young has had his time sitting on the bench decrease, Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks has been mostly relegated to a seat on the sideline the last two games due to gout. His left foot has been swollen, and he walked with a limp and only briefly paced the sideline Tuesday.
"I'd never seen nothing like that before," Sixers forward Rodney Carney said. "He said it's not going to bother him. He's going to coach like he always does."
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