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Question mark or statement from O'Neal?

One team has that ''been there, done that" look. The other team's marquee player has a ''been there, done that" look, not to mention a severe thigh bruise that is throwing the Eastern Conference Finals into the unknown.

With a healthy Shaquille O'Neal, or even a close-to-healthy Shaquille O'Neal, you'd be hard-pressed to make a convincing case against the Heat's chances in this series with the defending champion Pistons, which opens tonight at American Airlines Arena in Miami. But with Shaq not having played since May 10, and only having practiced once since then, his status for the opener, not to mention his overall effectiveness, is one large question mark.

O'Neal practiced Saturday but was held out yesterday, doing only some light shooting and cardio work. He told reporters he was trying to ''stay loose" and that he didn't want to take any chances.

''Hopefully [tonight] it feels good enough for me to go," O'Neal said. ''Either way my team's going to be ready. We're well-prepared. I'll wake up and see what I can do. Hopefully it's ready for me to go out and perform up to my potential. [Tonight] is going to be the true test."

In other words, who knows?

Asked, point blank, if O'Neal would play tonight, Miami coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters yesterday, ''No idea. We'll find out."

This is a little bit like the old line about the giraffe and the sore throat. O'Neal's massive right thigh has been a problem since Jermaine O'Neal accidentally kneed him April 17. That's more than one month ago. Despite being limited, O'Neal still averaged 18 points and 8.2 rebounds a game in the Heat's first six playoff games (a 4-0 sweep of the Nets and the first two of a 4-0 sweep of the Wizards) before he became a fashionplate for Games 3 and 4. But those are not Shaq-like numbers when he's on his game.

Normally, this is where Shaq's dominating presence and personality is at its zenith. This will be the eighth time he has taken a team to the NBA's Final Four. Only twice in the previous seven visits to the conference finals has O'Neal's team not advanced. He's 3-2 in five NBA Finals appearances and has three Finals MVP awards to show for it.

Now, in his first season with Miami, O'Neal and the Heat are four wins from what would be the franchise's first visit to the NBA Finals. (The Heat's only previous visit to the conference finals came in 1997, when the Bulls dusted them in five.) In blitzing through the first two rounds, not losing a game, Miami thus has been off since May 14, when it completed its broom job of the Wizards.

The Pistons, who beat Shaq's Lakers in last year's NBA Finals, are coming off an emotional 4-2 series victory over the Indiana Pacers, finished off last Thursday night at Conseco Fieldhouse in what proved to be Reggie Miller's swan song. Most of the key players from last year's title team are back, including a starting five that ranks as one of the best in the business. The Pistons' bench isn't as deep as it was last year, but coach Larry Brown still has Antonio McDyess, Carlos Arroyo, Lindsey Hunter, and even a calcified Elden Campbell to call upon if needed.

The common perception is that last year's Pistons did an excellent job on O'Neal in the Finals because Detroit won the series in five games. In fact, O'Neal averaged 26.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and shot 63.1 percent in 42-plus minutes per game. ''I think because they won the whole series and I was the whole team [Lakers], people probably felt that they stopped me," Shaq said. ''I think as a team we didn't play well. I guess they equate that to shutting me down."

It should be noted that this year's Heat are not last year's Lakers. For starters, Dwyane Wade is exponentially more unselfish, and just as productive, as Kobe Bryant. And last year's Lakers were like a soap opera in sweeps time, from starters secretly meeting with coach Phil Jackson to ask for a lineup change to a team official (Brian Shaw) calling Kobe's cellphone during a team meeting with instructions to ''get on Gary [Payton]."

Looking back, it's miraculous the Lakers managed one win.

''This is a different team, a much better team," O'Neal said of the 2004-05 Heat. ''We do what we're supposed to do, we'll be fine." Asked to elaborate, Shaq said, ''Guys are hungry, guys play together, there are no quarrels, no beefs over here. A lot of things are different. The feelings are different."

The Pistons and the Heat met three times during the regular season, with Detroit winning twice. In what could be an omen, neither team was able to muster as many as 90 points in any of the games. However, O'Neal missed the last meeting (a Miami home loss, 80-72, April 10) and, in that game, the normally celestial Wade was 1 for 6 from the field and had only 5 points. He had 48 points in the other two games.

''It was just a game," Wade told reporters yesterday, referring to the April 10 stinkeroo. ''They're one of the best defending teams in the league. They defend everybody good because they're long, athletic, and preach defense. But my fouls held me to 5 points. I'm not going to necessarily say they [Pistons] did. I didn't get an opportunity to get in a rhythm that game."

He has most definitely been in a rhythm in the playoffs, averaging 28.6 points, 8.4 assists, and 6.6 rebounds in 41.9 minutes a game. He's shooting 51.9 percent. Those are flossy numbers, but the Pistons are several notches above the Nets and Wizards.

In the end, the Heat expect O'Neal to give it a try tonight and see how it goes. There has to be concern in the Miami camp that the bruise is still bothersome more than a month after the fact. O'Neal came to Miami for moments like these. But, as he admitted yesterday, ''I'm used to being the good-looking Shaq. So anything that doesn't look good is not worth looking at."


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