MIAMI (AP) – A slight misperception seems to have taken hold on the eve of the Eastern Conference finals.

Many remember how the Pistons defeated Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship last year, and many therefore assume Detroit was successful in stopping Shaq.

That really wasn’t the case.

O’Neal averaged 26.6 points and 10.8 rebounds while shooting 63 percent from the field in the Lakers’ 4-1 loss to Detroit, a series in which Pistons coach Larry Brown bucked conventional wisdom and used single coverage against O’Neal.

No one is quite certain what scheme Brown will employ most against O’Neal when the Pistons open the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Monday night, but he’ll most likely make O’Neal prove he’s healthy enough to warrant double-coverage before using it.

If so, Ben Wallace gets the assignment of stopping a player who, until very recently, was considered the game’s most dominant force.

“I’m used to being the good-looking Shaq. Anything that doesn’t look good is not worth looking at,” O’Neal said Sunday after again sitting out practice to rest his bruised right thigh. “Right now I’m a high-class diamond that’s getting mistaken for a cubic zirconium.”

Asked if he’d play today, he said: “Hopefully.”

O’Neal bruised his thigh in mid-April when Jermaine O’Neal accidentally kneed him. He missed the final two games of the Heat’s second-round sweep of Washington, and his playoff averages of 18.0 points and 8.2 rebounds are by far the lowest of his career. He has practiced only once during Miami’s eight-day lull since sweeping the Wizards.

When playing at 100 percent, O’Neal has been nothing short of dominant in the playoffs during the course of his 13-year career.

Last season and his second season, 1993-94, were the only times he did not average at least 25 points in the postseason, and he has never failed to average at least 20.

If the injury keeps him from establishing the deep low-post position where he is most effective, the idea of using single-coverage against him becomes a little more palatable.

O’Neal has been reviewing videotapes of the Pistons-Lakers series, as well as his two meetings with Detroit during the regular season.

Coach Stan Van Gundy also has been watching the tapes of last year’s finals, and he chuckled at the perception – or rather the misperception – that the Pistons handled O’Neal well.

Brown expects his big men to get into foul trouble defending O’Neal, and he plans to use reserves Elden Campbell and Antonio McDyess against Miami’s 7-footer.

Campbell was used against O’Neal during last year’s finals and had a few brief stretches of success.

“I don’t think we had him on lockdown,” said Detroit’s Chauncey Billups, the MVP of the last season’s finals. “We won, but I thought we played Kobe (Bryant) better than Shaq. There’s no way you can lock Shaq down, or slow Shaq down, unless he’s injured.”

The Eastern finals match the teams with the conference’s two best records, and both have made it this far without too much hassle.

Miami is averaging 106.5 points on 51.1 percent shooting so far in the playoffs, with Dwyane Wade averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists in the eight games. Detroit yielded its first two playoff opponents just 84.4 points per game on 41.5 percent shooting.

The Heat expect the defensive intensity from their opponent in this series to be much higher than what they’ve been experiencing. For Wade, that should include much more physical contact than what he’s accustomed to. For Eddie Jones and Damon Jones, it should mean fewer opportunities to be open outside. For Udonis Haslem, it should mean less chances to convert offensive rebounds.

“They don’t give up a lot of points around the basket, they’re a great defensive rebounding team and they still manage to cover the 3-point line very well,” Van Gundy said. “They’re by far the best defensive team we have seen.”


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