Big letdown

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:27 AM ET

For a team on a severe losing streak, a visit from Shaquille O'Neal feels about as good as a kick to the groin. The Big Fella touched down at the Air Canada Centre yesterday and used his entire bag of tricks to knock out the reeling Raptors down the stretch.

With Shaq showcasing his passing and defensive prowess, the Heat outscored the Raptors 29-18 in the fourth quarter, despite O'Neal not scoring a single point. The Heat went on to beat the Raptors 106-98 before an eye-opening non-sellout crowd of 19,202.

That's seven consecutive losses for the Raptors, who did not have star Vince Carter (injured list, strained left Achilles tendon) and backup point guard Milt Palacio (excused for personal reasons) for the second game in a row.

"(O'Neal) made some good passes, he's used to getting double teamed," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "Some nights he makes them, some nights he (does not). He found guys late into the shot clock and layups like that, they break your back. We had no one that could guard him. When he's that deep in the paint, you've got to come. You've got to hope they make a bad decision or miss some shots. You've got to give them something."

CREEP BACK

The Raptors gave them something all right, letting the Heat creep back from an 11-point first-half deficit for their fourth win in a row. With the Raptors trailing by three late, O'Neal, facing a double team, made two great passes to Christian Laettner for easy buckets, pretty much sealing the win for Miami. O'Neal also was a defensive force, rejecting a Donyell Marshall shot on his first possession upon re-entering the game in the fourth quarter.

Shaq's 20 points and nine rebounds certainly aren't huge by his standards -- he had 34 and 17 in the Heat's 94-92 loss against the visiting Raptors Nov. 30 -- but his three assists in the fourth quarter made the difference.

"It's just me being very unselfish and knowing the game," O'Neal said. "I'm just trying to keep everybody involved and keep everybody's confidence up."

At least the Raptors didn't resemble a team on its last legs, like it did Friday against the Denver Nuggets. The maligned starting unit had the Raptors up 27-18 lead after the first quarter, with centre Loren Woods holding Shaq in check. Rafer Alston also looked great early and, in Palacio's absence, played all 48 minutes -- the first Raptor to do so since Carter on Feb. 4, 2002 in Philadelphia.

But Alston was turnover-prone in the fourth and Miami heated up, shooting 56% from the field overall. Dwyane Wade drove to the hoop for second-chance points -- he tied Shaq with a team-high 20 for the game -- and the result was all-too-familiar for the Raptors, who have lost 11 games by fewer than 10 points.

"I'm sure the coaching staff and players are tired of saying the same thing over and over," Raptors forward Chris Bosh said. "We're tired of making the same mistakes."

Jalen Rose led the way with 25 points for the Raptors, who will try to enjoy a much-needed day off today.


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