Shaq may return tonight


Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 1:58 a.m.

MIAMI - Shaquille O'Neal has vowed not to resume playing for the Miami Heat until his surgically repaired left knee is ''1,000 percent.''

Facts

Pacers at Heat

  • When: Tonight, 7
  • TV: TNT
  • Note: Miami center Shaquille O'Neal, who has been out since Nov. 19 to repair torn cartilage, may return to the lineup tonight.

  • He's almost there.

    O'Neal went through an entire practice on Wednesday, his first time playing full-court, five-on-five since the Nov. 19 procedure to repair torn cartilage. And he could make his comeback today, when the Heat host the Indiana Pacers.

    ''We'll see where I'm at in the morning, how I feel and make a decision,'' O'Neal said.

    O'Neal has missed 33 of Miami's 37 games this season - and, largely because they've been without O'Neal, the defending NBA champions have a sluggish 17-20 record. But the Heat haven't had their full team together at any point this season, either.

    With O'Neal on the cusp of returning, that's about to change.

    ''He did full contact, full workout, up and down, did everything everybody did,'' Heat interim coach Ron Rothstein said. ''This is the first time, full-team, five-on-five, up-and-down. It went good. He's got a ways to go yet, but it was encouraging.''

    Looking fit and considerably lighter - Heat guard Jason Kapono said O'Neal's oft-scrutinized weight is currently 235 pounds, which is probably about 90 pounds away from reality - the 13-time All-Star center ran the floor well and was his customary physical self during practice, teammates said.

    If O'Neal returns on Thursday, he could face what may be a depleted Indiana roster. The Pacers swung an eight-player trade with Golden State on Wednesday afternoon, sending Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to the Warriors for Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod, and it's unknown if any of the new Indiana players will be in Miami and ready to play Thursday night.

    Yet potential matchups are truly secondary to the Heat right now. They simply want to see O'Neal back on the floor.

    ''He looked good,'' backup center Earl Barron said. ''He was banging around. His strength, his mobility, the way he was moving, it all looked real good.''

    And for the first time this season, so does the Heat's medical report.

    Miami has endured a litany of physical issues so far this year. Point guard Jason Williams was slowed while he recovered from offseason knee surgery. Reigning NBA finals MVP Dwyane Wade has missed some time with a sprained wrist, forwards James Posey and Antoine Walker were deactivated earlier this month because they didn't meet a team-mandated body fat standard, and coach Pat Riley is out indefinitely while recovering from knee surgery and a hip replacement.

    ''If I had to pick a part of the season where we would falter, it'd be the beginning,'' center Alonzo Mourning said.

    With O'Neal set to return, it will only help Miami's fortunes, which seem to already be changing.

    Wade has recovered from his wrist problem and led Miami to a 4-1 record in the final five games of its Western swing. Posey and Walker are back in the fray, and Riley's recovery is reportedly going well.

    Getting O'Neal back will, eventually, send Mourning back to reserve status - something he'll apparently embrace.

    ''Trust me, I'm anxiously awaiting him to come back,'' Mourning said. ''But I want him to come back right ... and for the long haul, for the rest of the year.''

    That's O'Neal's plan too, which is why he's being cautious. With 45 regular-season games left, he doesn't see the sense in returning before the knee is truly ready.

    ''I'm very anxious to be out there with the guys,'' O'Neal said. ''But I want to be at 1,000 percent so I can help them and not slow down the process.''

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