|Shaquille O'Neal believes he's being tested by his slump. (File/Doug Benc/Getty Images)|
MIAMI - Shaquille O'Neal sees this as just another test.
His average of 14.3 points per game is by far the lowest of his career. His Miami Heat are 7-17, one of the worst records in the NBA, and look nothing like the team that won a championship 18 months ago. His leg hurts, his pride aches, and he knows that, since he's 35, many believe he's finished.
Not surprisingly, O'Neal, a four-time NBA champion, begs to differ.
He still believes in the Heat and, perhaps most important, he still believes in himself.
"Do I feel tested? Yeah," O'Neal said yesterday. "I'll either pass or fail. That's why they call it a test."
O'Neal had 15 points and eight rebounds Monday in Miami's 91-87 win over the woebegone Minnesota Timberwolves, a game in which the Heat had to dig deep in the final minutes to prevail at home over the NBA's worst road team.
In terms of numbers, even though he fouled out, it was among his better games this season. But his assessment?
"Terrible," O'Neal said.
He scoffs at the notion that his days as a dominant big man are done. Sure, he's not an MVP candidate anymore, and Dwyane Wade - not O'Neal - has been Miami's most vital scoring option in recent seasons. But he's almost defiant in his insistence that if given more shots, he would be more effective.
O'Neal is averaging 10 shots per game. Asked how many he wants, he wouldn't give a specific number.
"More than 10, so I can get into the game," O'Neal said. "My son can't even get into a game with seven shots."
His frustration is obvious, with both his own numbers and the Heat record.
But he's not the same big, bad O'Neal he was a few years ago, either.
Injuries nag him now and, in some cases, take incredibly long to heal - like a thigh bruise he suffered in the preseason and remains rather problematic, so much so that O'Neal confessed he must "rely on almost illegal things to get me going."
"He's getting better," coach Pat Riley said. "He's getting therapy. I'm not seeing him, right now, drag the leg like he did about a week ago, 10 days ago. He was really laboring to lift the leg. I'm not seeing that in his game, so that's better."
Riley has resisted changing the Heat offensive philosophy and still considers O'Neal an extremely important part of the attack, even as the numbers decline.
The thinking there is simple - he still believes in O'Neal.
"You know who Shaq is," Riley said. "He's an affable guy. He was Superman. I mean, he was indestructible, unstoppable, all those things. But as he gets a little bit older and things slow down, he still can be very effective."
He still has some fire, too.
O'Neal has avoided reporters after several games this year, a rare occurrence during his first three Miami seasons, and got into a heated argument with Riley during practice a few weeks back. Things reportedly got so bad during the exchange that center Alonzo Mourning intervened.
Former Heat forward Antoine Walker laughed when told of the O'Neal-Riley dustup, saying it wasn't the first time the future Hall of Famers had an argument and won't be the last, either.
But, even though he's an outsider now, Walker thinks O'Neal can remain a major force.
"I think he still has a lot left," Walker said. "You have to figure out a way for him to be effective. He may not be a guy you can throw it in to 20 times a game. You have to find other ways to make him effective. So I don't think it's necessarily skills diminishing. You've just got to find a way of really using him."
O'Neal entered into divorce proceedings this fall, something he has refused to talk about publicly since October and won't include as a factor for the rough start to his 16th NBA season.
Even now, with his game being dissected and his team struggling, O'Neal hasn't lost sight of what matters.
He told a story of a recent Heat team visit to a hospital, where they were introduced to a war veteran who lost a leg. When that man saw O'Neal, he was smiling, joking, even jumping.
The point, O'Neal said, is that any struggle - in basketball or the real world - can be overcome.
"You have to realize that nothing will break me down," he said.