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It is still a bit jarring to see him in a uniform that is not purple and gold, and the shock will probably never entirely wear off. But basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal is no longer a Los Angeles Laker. Forced to depart Los Angeles because southern California was not big enough for him and fellow superstar Kobe Bryant, O’Neal decamped for the Miami Heat, and although he has yet to make good on his initial pledge to walk naked on the local beaches, he has delivered in almost every other respect.

Miami finished the regular season with a 59-23 record, the best in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference, and as the play-offs get under way this weekend, the Heat, who open at home on Sunday against the New Jersey Nets, find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being legitimate title contenders.

Since their debut season in 1988, Miami have reached the play-offs nine times but have never made it past the second round. Several of the defeats were heartbreakers, and over the years the Miami faithful came to regard bitter disappointment as a rite of spring.

However, the team have never had a player quite like O’Neal, and while the Heat’s snake-bitten past is not easily expunged from the memory bank, Miami fans feel cautiously optimistic as the post-season begins.

O’Neal is one of the most dominant big men ever to play in the NBA, so it is hardly surprising that the Heat have prospered mightily with him on court. Indeed, Miami won 17 more games this year than last, and last year’s team were a respectable squad.

O’Neal notched up his usual impressive numbers in his first season with the Heat, averaging 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. But his biggest contribution is one that cannot be entirely quantified: he has made his team-mates better players.

Dwyane Wade, Damon Jones, Eddie Jones and just about every other member of the Heat has thrived with O’Neal in the line-up. With three championship rings, O’Neal knows something about winning; more importantly, he also knows something about teamwork.

“Shaq is a remarkably generous team-mate, and he really opened up his heart and soul to all these guys,” says Bill Walton, former NBA player who is now a commentator for sports channel ESPN. “He basically said to them, ‘We’ve got a real team here and we can play’. And he has made it fun; everyone on that team is having the time of his life. It is an electric atmosphere.”

In retrospect, adds Walton, the forced relocation to Miami was the best thing that could have happened to the 33-year-old O’Neal. The soap opera in the Laker locker room had started to sap his enthusiasm and competitive ardour. “His career was beginning to crumble in LA,” says Walton.

Moving to Miami gave him a new supporting cast and a new challenge: to prove that he could win without Bryant. “He has re-dedicated himself to basketball and really raised the level of his play,” adds Walton.

For O’Neal, Miami’s success has been made all the sweeter by the travails of the Shaq-less Lakers.

Although Los Angeles reached last year’s NBA finals, they were beaten in five games by the Detroit Pistons, and what few ties had bound the team together through the season immediately unravelled once the play-offs were over. Bryant made it clear to Laker owner Jerry Buss that he would leave Los Angeles unless O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson were defenestrated. Buss did as Bryant wanted and divested himself of the centre and coach who had led the team to three consecutive titles.

Buss has yet to admit publicly that he made a colossal blunder, but it hardly needs to be said. The Lakers finished the season 34-48, tied for last in the Pacific Division, and missed the play-offs for the first time in 11 years. Adding an entire salt shaker to the wound, two of their losses came at the hands of the Heat. While Bryant was the NBA’s second-leading scorer, he displayed the same on-court selfishness and off-court petulance that alienated O’Neal and Jackson and that led so many observers to question the wisdom of handing control of the team to the mercurial 26-year-old superstar.

For O’Neal, a championship with Miami would be the ultimate revenge, but to reach the NBA finals the Heat will likely have to get past the defending champions Detroit Pistons, who finished second in the East. A semi-final showdown with the Pistons would also offer O’Neal an opportunity for redemption. Not only did the Pistons crush the Lakers in last year’s finals, but Detroit’s undersized centre, Ben Wallace, also managed to shrink O’Neal to human proportions over the course of five games. O’Neal averaged 26 points during the finals, seven fewer than he had averaged in four previous trips to the championship series, and neither Bryant nor any other Laker was able to compensate for O’Neal’s diminished output.

The Pistons have peaked in time for the play-offs, winning 17 of their last 22 games, including a stretch of 11 consecutive victories. Miami, by contrast, cooled off in the home stretch, winning just five of their last 10 regular season games.

More worrying than the lack of momentum is the state of O’Neal’s health; he was forced to sit out the final week of the season because of a deep thigh bruise. His body had begun to show its age in Los Angeles, and though he will likely be starting on Sunday against the Nets, his ability to withstand the punishment of the play-offs is once again an open question.

Indeed, the missed games could cost O’Neal the Most Valuable Player award. He and Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns are considered the leading contenders. Nash led the Suns to a league-best 62-20 record, and the fact that he managed to finish the season on the court while O’Neal finished it on the sidelines could make the difference with the basketball writers and broadcasters who cast MVP ballots.

On a more encouraging note, the Heat won their last three games despite O’Neal being out of the line-up, which suggests that the rest of the team may be able to help the genial giant across the finish line should the need arise.

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