MIAMI (AP) – First, Shaq sat. To take a load off his surgically repaired left knee, he settled into a chair outside the Miami Heat locker room Tuesday.

Then he spoke barely above a whisper into a cluster of microphones inches from his face. For those straining to hear, the message was nonetheless clear: Shaquille O’Neal’s latest injury should not be interpreted as a sign that he’s in decline.

“They’ve been saying that the last 10 years,” said O’Neal, speaking publicly for the first time since his surgery on Nov. 19. “I’m going to stick to my formula. I know what I’ve been doing, and nobody does it better, even at the tender age of 34.”

O’Neal has been sidelined since Nov. 12, when he tore knee cartilage against Houston, and he’s expected to be out until at least Dec. 23.

A year ago, when O’Neal sprained his ankle in Miami’s home opener and missed 18 games, there was talk his body was breaking down. He recovered, sat out only five more games and led the Heat to the NBA title for his fourth championship ring.

Now that he’s in the middle of another layoff, rumblings about slippage in his productivity have resurfaced. He dismisses detractors.

“I don’t say anything to people that could never do the stuff that I can do,” he said.

Miami’s sub-.500 record in O’Neal’s absence suggests his value remains high. The Heat went 10-13 without him a year ago, and they’re 4-6 without him this month.

“My brothers are out there struggling right now, and I should be out there with them,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to watch.”

He’s expected to remain on the bench for a while. The injury originally was diagnosed as a hyperextended knee, and O’Neal said he was surprised when an MRI exam revealed the need for surgery.

His layoff is projected to be four to six weeks following the operation, and O’Neal has yet to resume running.

“It’s like starting over,” he said. “A couple of days before I got the second diagnosis, I made the comment that my leg was dead. Usually when you have a knee injury, your quads and everything just shut down. That’s what was happening. Now I just have to rebuild all that back up.”

O’Neal has missed 185 games during his 15-year NBA career, but this is the first time he needed rehabilitation therapy following an operation.

“I hope his thought process is that he tries to almost reinvent himself physically,” coach Pat Riley said. “He has to come back a lot lighter, a lot leaner. Those kinds of things are really important now.”

No problem, O’Neal said.

“I’ll be in shape good enough to help the team out and help win games and further what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Miami had lost four consecutive home games, but Dwyane Wade’s move to point guard last week revived the offense.

Wade has totaled at least 30 points and 10 assists in three consecutive games, and the Shaq-less Heat have won two in a row.

“We just have to develop a certain style right now and develop some consistency,” O’Neal said. “We’re getting better and moving the ball better, and Dwyane is playing phenomenal. Everyone else just has to do more and step up. We all have to step up. And we will.”

AP-ES-11-28-06 1722EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.