Rising SunsThe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM