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Monday, March 17, 2008

Rising Suns

The new-look Phoenix Suns are riding a four game winning streak that began with their impressive 94-87 win over the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday. Two of the other victories were against sub-.500 teams (Memphis, Sacramento) but on Thursday the Suns beat the Golden State Warriors, a team that had defeated them in both of their previous encounters this season. Prior to Thursday's game, TNT's Charles Barkley said that Shaquille O'Neal would likely not have much impact on the result because Golden State would force the Suns to play small-ball.

While O'Neal only played 14 minutes versus the Warriors, it would not be correct to say that he had no impact. He scored nine points and had four rebounds in his limited action. More significant than O'Neal's individual numbers is the fact that the Suns outscored the Warriors by nine when O'Neal was in the game. In other words, O'Neal was able to be productive and effective even against a team that really pushes the ball.

O'Neal only played eight minutes in the first half against Golden State because he got into early foul trouble, not because of how he was playing. The Suns trailed 62-59 at halftime but with O'Neal on the court in the third quarter they took a 78-75 lead before he got his fifth foul. The Suns continued to play well even after O'Neal went to the bench, so Coach Mike D'Antoni never brought him back into the game. Some people might look at that and say that O'Neal did not have much to do with the outcome of the game but that misses the point on two levels. One, as I noted, the Suns performed very well with O'Neal in the game, so if in future games versus this team he cuts down on the senseless offensive fouls then there is every reason to believe that he could play very productively against the Warriors for 25-30 minutes, which is something that a lot of people may have doubted; two, the supposed downside of trading away Shawn Marion to acquire O'Neal is that the Suns would no longer be able to play an uptempo game but this victory goes a long way toward refuting that notion: the Suns still have a good "speed" team with Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Grant Hill and Raja Bell and now they also have a "power" team when O'Neal is in the game--and not only that, but they can even play the "speed" game with O'Neal serving as a rebounder/defender/outlet passer.

The two teams that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year--San Antonio and Utah--are often thought of as half court teams but they both showed the ability to successfully play at different speeds during their playoff runs; that is why San Antonio was able to eliminate Phoenix and Utah was able to eliminate Golden State.

O'Neal adds physicality to the Suns. He will wear down the opposing team's inside players in a seven game series in two ways: he will pound on them when they drive to the hoop or try to post up and they will have to use a lot of energy and force when they guard him to prevent him from getting good post position. Many people apparently have written off the Suns and that lack of attention may help the Suns as well; instead of being favorites who carry the weight of other people's expectations they will likely enter this year's playoffs as underdogs carrying chips on their shoulders. This is the perfect situation for O'Neal: he is on a very talented team that does not need him to dominate and he is at a stage in his career during which he no longer feels compelled to engage in ego battles about whose team it is. If he helps the Suns to reach the NBA Finals then he will have capped his career off in grand fashion but if the Suns fall short O'Neal will get a pass because of his age and past accomplishments; the real pressure is on Coach D'Antoni and Steve Nash to make this work, while General Manager Steve Kerr will bear the brunt of the flak if the trade eventually is perceived to be a mistake. Considering that the alternative for O'Neal was to finish out his career putting up career-low numbers for the worst team in the league, he should be the happiest man in the NBA that circumstances have placed him in a situation where he can have a significant role in determining who wins this year's championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM



At Tuesday, March 18, 2008 1:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie'

shaq has played well for the suns without question he has always been a unselfish player who never went for individual goals he is a team player without question you saying he is not engageing in who team it is battles is weird and wrong he never has shaq was always the best player on his team with orlando and the lakers and the first year in miami and even accepted the number 2 role in 2006 championship team. shaq has never had to say everybody knew in orlando and the lakers he was the best player on the team kobe wanted to be his team at the time but it wasnt he had to wait his turn and now has his own team but those who knew the game knew it was shaq team thats why kobe 3 rings are yeah but, yeah he won 3 rings but he wasnt the best player and he played with shaq in his prime, shaq rings have no yeah but becasue he was the man.

At Tuesday, March 18, 2008 6:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As Roland Lazenby has pointed out in various articles and books, Shaq not only has a large ego but he is very sensitive and always wants to make sure that he receives a lot of credit. I've never heard Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Steve Nash or other great passers repeatedly talk about how unselfish they are but every time Shaq has a press conference he always mentions that. There is also something a little phony about how when he was with Kobe he said that Kobe was the best player in the NBA, then when he was with Wade he said that Wade was the best player and now he says that he is going to turn Amare into the best power forward. I think that Amare has been performing well for years without Shaq. What Shaq is basically saying is that any talented player who plays alongside him becomes the best player by virtue of playing with Shaq. It is true that Shaq attracts extra defensive attention but Penny, Kobe, Wade and Amare in their primes would all be All-NBA level players with or without Shaq.

Nevertheless, despite the huge ego and the constant need to be praised, Shaq has been a great player and I do think that acquiring him was a good move for the Suns.

As for who wanted the Lakers to be his team, Shaq deserves at least as much criticism in that regard as Kobe. Shaq is the one who publicly said that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense). Kobe never said anything like that, he never let his conditioning go and he certainly never dogged it offensively or defensively (Shaq's effort waxed and waned at times, though he did come up big in the playoffs during the championship seasons).


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