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The heat is on: East, Celtics brace for Shaq

LAS VEGAS -- Miami Heat president Pat Riley could announce the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a first-round draft choice as early as today. With the two-week moratorium on trades and free agent signings over, the much-anticipated deal will change the complexion of the NBA, officially dismantling the current Lakers dynasty and instantly turning the Heat into title contenders. The trade comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed the drama in LA since the Lakers lost the title to the Pistons.

But what does O'Neal's move from southern California to southern Florida mean for the big man, the league, and the Eastern Conference?

The deal should provide the 32-year-old O'Neal an opportunity to rejuvenate and lengthen his career against Eastern Conference teams short on true centers and overall size in comparison with the West. Besides, the slower tempo of most teams in the East will suit the 7-foot-1-inch, 340-pound O'Neal.

The Heat become one of the elite teams in the East and a big draw around the NBA. Talk of the Western Conference being dominant ended with Detroit winning the 2004 title, but the O'Neal trade increases the East's profile in a way a championship could not.

"Shaq still remains the most dominant player and the toughest player to match up with in all of basketball," said Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "I think it shifts the power. I think Miami is immediately a better team. And the East has an immediate contender with the presence of Shaq. So that affects everybody, not just the Heat. Wherever Shaq plays, that team has a chance to beat anybody on any given night, and to win any series against anybody."

With multiple sources reporting O'Neal is set to sign a contract extension, it would seem to be as good a time as any for a team like the Celtics to build through youth. Between the Heat, the Pistons, and the Pacers, there could be a logjam at the top of the conference for some time. But according to Ainge, the Celtics and other teams in the East remain in much the same position they were before O'Neal orchestrated his return to the Sunshine State.

"I see the Pistons as better than the Heat," said Ainge. "Miami is definitely a contender now. They're back in the game, whereas they weren't really before. Even though they were a playoff team, they really weren't in a contention mode. But I certainly don't think that they're better than Detroit. I think of Shaq taking a team that was somewhere between sixth and eighth in the conference and moved them up to the top four somewhere. It's a good get for Miami.

"The Celtics, the Nets, the Pistons, every team in the East has been trying to get [into contention]. The problem is there's just no other Shaq. So, one team has Shaq and there's no Shaq stoppers or Shaq nemesis. Maybe [Houston center] Yao Ming is the closest thing to that. So I don't see how it changes the mentality or the job description of anybody in the Eastern Conference."

The job description for recently re-signed Celtics center Mark Blount may remain the same, but he now faces the prospect of matching up with O'Neal four times per season, not twice. According to Blount, the strategy for containing O'Neal is to "pull him out of the paint and run him."

"I think [the trade] really changes that team because before [Miami] was an up-and-down team," said Blount, reached by phone in Florida yesterday. "Now, it makes them more half-court. You're giving away all your young players. I think it will be fun to play against Miami and play against Shaq. It will be interesting."

The announcement of the O'Neal trade comes after Miami coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Randy Pfund were offered multiyear contract extensions. The Heat hope O'Neal brings even greater success to a team that finished a surprising fourth in the East last season after a second-half surge. But Ainge remains focused on developing the Celtics' roster. Last night, Ainge sat beside Paul Pierce at Cox Pavilion, watching Boston beat Denver, 111-103. Pierce chatted about the need to acquire another veteran and the benefit of bringing back Blount. Pierce knows the Celtics can use all the big men they can get, but like Ainge, he understands the team has a lot of work ahead with or without O'Neal in the East."There should be a lot made of Shaq going to Miami, but it doesn't guarantee them anything," said Ainge. "It's not like the rest of the Eastern Conference is just going to concede that Miami is going to win a championship."

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