MIAMI (AP) - During the past two Miami Heat games, Jermaine O'Neal has gotten poked in the face, kicked in the leg and knocked on his back.He's enjoyed every bit.
It's no coincidence that the two Heat wins in this Eastern Conference first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks came in O'Neal's best games with Miami. Looking every bit the All-Star of old, O'Neal combined for 41 points and 16 rebounds in those contests, and it's him - not Dwyane Wade - that has the Hawks befuddled entering Monday's critical Game 4.
And for the first time since 2006, when Wade and that other O'Neal - Shaq - were teamed up, Miami has the second round in sight.
"He's definitely the X-factor for the Miami Heat," Hawks forward Josh Smith said Sunday. "If he keeps playing the way he's playing, it's going to be tough to beat them."
That's music to O'Neal's ears. And it's what Clifford O'Neal envisioned when he called his baby brother after Game 1, where the Heat got walloped and their center was a non-factor with five points and two rebounds.
Clifford O'Neal had one question: Are you going to have fun or not?
With that, something clicked for Jermaine O'Neal. He's been different since, and after finding Wade for a spectacular dunk in Saturday's Game 3 Miami romp, he strutted near half court, pointed skyward and waved his arms in exhilaration.
That's the O'Neal the Heat wanted when they traded Shawn Marion to Toronto for him in February.
"I'm a very emotional player," O'Neal said. "That's always kind of been my calling card since I was in Indiana. I was a guy really able to get in a rhythm and really build off the emotions of the crowd and the emotions of myself."
In Miami's eyes, he's picked the perfect time to let that show.
"He's seizing the opportunity right now ... really stepping up to the challenge," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Atlanta is willing to concede certain things offensively to Wade, knowing no team has completely stopped the NBA's scoring champion. So the Hawks' defensive gameplan is built around stopping Miami's supporting cast, like O'Neal, Udonis Haslem, Michael Beasley and Daequan Cook.
"It's not only D-Wade, but it's the guys around him who are playing such a big role," Hawks guard Joe Johnson said. "We have to get Miami as a team out of their rhythm."
Easier said than done.
But vital if Atlanta's season is going to last for at least another week.
"Our backs are against the wall," Hawks forward Al Horford said. "Really against the wall."
Win on Monday, all that gets forgotten, and home-court advantage swings back to Atlanta.
"We haven't played well these last two games," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "So we've got to just see what we're made of. Until we're eliminated, hey, I'm going to keep fighting and I've got to push them to keep fighting."
Johnson, Atlanta's best player who was held to 10-for-30 shooting in the last two games, is making Game 4 a personal challenge.
"We have to make something happen, and I count myself as one who has to step up his game," Johnson said.
In other words, do what O'Neal did.
There were times since the trade that O'Neal looked almost lost in the Heat system, going through long stretches where he was unable to get rebounds and barely being much of a factor in the offense.
"This is why you make a deal like that," Spoelstra said. "When the game slows down in the playoffs and you need to have a paint or post presence, this is his value."
Right now, the challenge for O'Neal is getting into the second round, a place he hasn't been since 2005.
Two more wins are all that's needed.
"This is the best I've felt, physically, in the last two or three years," O'Neal said.