Thoughts on Shaquille O'Neal, D-League and More

Alando Tucker travels to play for the Albuquerque Thunderbirds again this week to continue progressing in his game. 

(NBAE Photos)

I’m going to start by discussing the topic everybody has obviously been asking about – the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal. I was driving in my car listening to the radio when I first found out about the trade. Fans were discussing their opinions on what it would be like to have O’Neal in Phoenix, and I thought they were just responding to a rumor. A couple of teammates ended up telling me that it was actually the real deal. To be honest, my emotions were kind of mixed. Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks were both good teammates and good guys, but at the same time I was really looking forward to playing with a teammate I grew up watching in O’Neal. I also thought about how excited the city was going to be and that really helped in me getting excited also. While my emotions were mixed, everybody told me I had the right attitude as it was going to be important for us to look forward as we continue to work towards our ultimate goal of winning a championship.

I have been watching Shaq and have been a big fan since his days in Orlando – back when he was what I call “Thin Shaq.” He was agile, breaking rims and has really showed a lot of the same here. You obviously saw that if you watched the San Antonio game on Sunday.

Being a communications major also played a big part in why O’Neal was one of my favorite players growing up. He always seemed so prepared for his interviews, which is something a lot of people take for granted. He’s always ready, he’s always got a joke and I’ve learned that he really prepares for interviews. And I think that’s big. [Read more...]

By the Numbers: The Shaquille O'Neal Effect

Since the second season of the Steve Nash Era, I have told anyone who would listen that you need to give the team nine games to get into a groove.

It's taken a few games but Nash and O'Neal are starting to learn how to play together now.  (NBAE Photos)
It’s taken a few games but Nash and O’Neal are starting to learn how to play together now. (NBAE Photos)

For some reason, it takes Steve that many games to figure out where his fellow teammates like to catch passes and his teammates the same number of games to remember they need to have their hands always ready when they are running into the lane.

In the four years since Nash has been back, the team has gone 21-15 if you add up the first nine games of each of those seasons. That’s not too bad of a record. It’s a 58% winning percentage. But in the 9 games after (games 10 through 18 of each season), the team is cumulatively 33-3.

When the Suns pulled the trigger on the Shaquille O’Neal trade, I tried to tell everyone I could not to judge the success or failure of the trade based on the first nine games. Based on previous seasons, the team would be getting to know each other all over again. It would be like starting a new season with new players. Except that most of the rest of the teams the Suns were playing were in mid-season shape.

Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised that the Suns went 3-6 in the first nine games with Shaq. Nor was I surprised that they won their next two games. But I still see the pitfalls the team faces. Unlike starting a normal season, the teams the Suns are playing now aren’t on a level playing field. Most of them didn’t just replace a major spoke in a wheel that likes to travel 90 mph. The Suns schedule for the rest of the month is: Golden State, Sacramento, Portland, Houston, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Denver. But if any team can pick up the pace in mid-season and go on a winning streak despite the challenges, it’s this team.

Here are some other numbers you might find interesting about the past 10 games with Shaq:

  • In wins, opponents’ field goal percentage has gone from 43.5% to 40.4%.
  • Opponent 3-point field goal percentage has decreased from 31.4% to 29.2% when the Suns win.
  • In losses, total Suns rebounds haven’t changed much but in wins total rebounds have increased by nearly 6 rebounds per game.
  • Percentage of total rebounds increased in both wins and losses; from 48% to 56% in wins and from 45% to 49% in losses.
  • Turnovers have increased in both wins and losses.
  • In Suns wins, O’Neal averages 8 points per game. In losses, he averages 13 points per game.


Have you noticed any other O’Neal Effect in the past 10 games? Are there any other numbers you’re curious about but just don’t want to look up yourself? E-mail me at blog@suns.com.

GO SUNS!

Suns Finally Get to Smile After a Laugher

Leandro Barbosa shot 58% and scored 18 points in the Suns’ win over the Grizzlies.
(NBAE Photos)

Or, to put it another way, when you’re playing a team as poor as the Grizzlies, the book says to jump on them very early, and the Suns went by it – building a 41-22 lead on 68 percent shooting and a 14-6 edge in rebounding in the first quarter.

And although he took no shots, Shaquille O’Neal was the catalyst with four rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in less than 10 minutes. And perhaps as meaningful as those numbers are, what’s even more encouraging is the enthusiasm he has pumped back into the fans with his hustle. In fact, he got one ovation for diving after a loose ball.

The Suns also played some solid defense as long as it mattered for a second straight game, holding the Grizzlies to 41 first half points. True, Memphis scored 70 in the second half, but intensity is the key to “D”, and nothing drains intensity like a 39-point lead in the third period. Also, Coach Mike gave his starters the fourth period off.

And if you want to know just much the mood has changed around here, consider that just two games ago the Suns were fighting misperceptions that they were deader than a broken doorknob, and now Coach Mike is cautioning the faithful against overconfidence.

“We don’t want to get oversold because of what we did tonight,” he warned. “We’re still not there yet, but Shaq is getting better with each game, and I was real happy with our defense. We’ve got a chance to be a real good team.”

Also, while he’s not making any predictions or issuing any guarantees, Coach also thinks that although they are still the sixth seed slot in the West right now, the Suns still have a realistic shot at climbing back to the top in the West, and that the Suns have as good a shot as anybody as winning the NBA title.

And while I don’t want to make any predictions either, I’m with him on both of those points. The Suns haven’t solved all their problems by any means, but the other contenders have problems too, and the thing is there is no 900-pouind gorilla out there in the West, or the East either for that matter.

Another plus in this rout is how well the Suns seemed to mesh offensively, and how much more comfortable they seemed to be with each other in their “new” skin. Granted, it’s easy to mesh when you’re playing Memphis, but even so this is the kind of familiarity that definitely breeds content.

The Suns also had to be pleased with the play of recently acquired Gordan Giricek, who delivered 18 points in 30 minutes, and looked athletic and aggressive at both ends of the court.

The bottom line: Nothing gets a team to smiling as much as a laugher.

True Story: Shaq Almost Killed Me

I have nothing significant to add. So instead, I’d like to talk about the fans that escaped death-by-Shaq in his heroic Superman flight into the stands.

For those of you who didn’t see the game, Steve Nash missed his shot and Shaq sprinted towards the sideline to grab the rebound. The drama began about a half-second later when it became clear that Shaq had run out of court but wouldn’t give up on the ball. He planted his feet squarely, then bounced up and over two young boys in court side seats, threw the ball back on the court, and then smeared a dozen adults in rows 2-3.

He landed much like a pole-vaulter crashes on his back into a pit of fluffy sponges. Except this pole vaulter was Shaq, and the fluffy sponges were ordinary people enjoying the game. Those of you who fail to have compassion for these people don’t understand Shaq’s size.� He is 7 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 325 pounds – roughly as large as the refrigerator in your kitchen.

Take a few seconds to look away from the computer and size up that big fat fridge in the other room. Now imagine that refrigerator flying at your head. Yeah, that’s pretty scary. The scene was so outrageous that the entire US Airways Center erupted. (An energy that carried through the final seconds of the fourth quarter.) Shaq struggled to pull himself up from the knot of fans and got back in the game.

Video of Shaq flying into the stands.

A few minutes later, one of the fan-victims got a primetime interview with ABC. Another sustained an injury to his lip, but he’s expected to be at the next game in top health. But the real winners are the two young boys who sat courtside. Why? Because they get to tell this story for the rest of their lives.

To help you understand where I am coming from, you have to first understand how much males enjoy telling stories about themselves. The most popular man stories will include one of the following:

  1. Almost dying. It doesn’t matter how you almost died. It’s just cool that you came close. (See Gladiator, 2000.)
  2. Someone saving your life. This is great because guys like loyalty. If someone saves your life, you owe them a big one. It gives your life purpose. (See Sandlot, 1993.)
  3. Fighting a bear. I don’t think I have to explain this. (See Legends of the Fall, 1994)
  4. An encounter with a celebrity. Most women are content with just meeting a celebrity, but men won’t be satisfied unless it’s a bizarre or absolutely normal experience with a celebrity. Let me give you an example. Bizarre means that you saw Michael Jackson hold his kid over a hotel balcony (2002.) Absolutely normal means you stood behind Sean Penn in a long bathroom line in a New York City nightclub or you went bowling in Los Angeles with *NSYNC. (Both of which happened to me, 2000.)

Those two young boys have the ultimate story because their story includes numbers one, two, and both sides of four. While the grownups only get a week to tell their story to jealous and unimpressed co-workers, these little guys have at least ten more years before they graduate high school. This story be retold to eager audiences of close friends, new acquaintances, and future girlfriends.

In twenty years when these two boys are grown men, one of them will meet Shaq at a charity event downtown. He’ll stand at the foot of Goliath and recall the details of the big Suns/Spurs game back in ’08. Shaq will chuckle at the memory, and then point to his 5th NBA Championship ring and remind them that it was a good season with the Suns, just like he promised.

No Doubt, Win Over Spurs Big

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My friend Dino e-mailed me from New York yesterday. “Shaq is done,” he wrote. “Sorry, but he is.” I wrote back, “Obviously, you didn’t watch the Spurs game Sunday,” in which Shaq had 14 points and 16 rebounds against one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Shaquille O’Neal and Linton Johnson enjoy a moment on the bench in the Suns’ rout of the Grizzlies. (NBAE Photos)

Dino�replied, “It’s just one game. And what did the Spurs care?”

What did the Spurs care? I bet they cared a lot. For the following reasons:

  1. They’re in a dogfight for the best overall record in the conference, and every game is crucial.
  2. It was a game against a potential playoff opponent.
  3. It was their first look at the “Big Cactus” Era Suns, a Phoenix squad unlike any they’d played in the last four years.
  4. This is a Spurs team that takes special pride in their “voodoo” over our local favorites. Every win against the Suns is another shot to the purple and orange confidence.

So, these Spurs had every reason to care about the game’s outcome. And they were healthy, rested and ready to go. They were as hot as any team this side of Houston, also, coming off a long winning streak, starting their patented second-half “Okay, time to wake up and get ready for the playoffs” push. They weren’t loafing, and they couldn’t fall back on excuses.

As for the Suns, the reasons why the game was so important were just as numerous, and well-discussed among press and fans:

  1. The team was absolutely reeling, unable to find a consistent winning formula in the games since the Shaq trade.
  2. The defense had been deplorable, allowing teams to run up regular scores of 110+ points and shoot outrageous, unconscious percentages.
  3. The Suns had plummeted in the playoff standings… and some pundits were prophesying the team would even fall completely out and into the draft lottery by season’s end.
  4. Criticism of coaching and management had reached a fever pitch.

So what did the Suns do? They went out and pitched a gem. A defensive gem, of all things, limiting the Spurs to 38% shooting, holding them under a hundred points, coming back from deficits, never losing their poise, and winning in a way Suns fans aren’t used to seeing – by grinding it out.

If there’s been a bigger regular-season win under more difficult circumstances in recent years, I’m hard-pressed to think of what it was.

Now, like Dino said, this is only one game. And trophies aren’t handed out for single regular-season games. The future is yet unwritten; the Suns could win their first championship, they may not. But here’s what this one game said:

  1. Everyone who’s been saying, “It’ll take time for the Suns to find themselves after the trade,” feels a little more validated for the time being – from Mike D’Antoni to Steve Kerr to Robert Sarver to me.
  2. There’s room on the court for Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal and Amare Stoudemire.
  3. The Suns can play defense. By which I mean, they’re capable of it. They know it, and now we know it, too. They can win games when their shooting is off, or when opponents manage to solve them defensively.
  4. The Suns can beat elite teams at their full power. Their record thus far this season against the cream of the Western Conference hasn’t been very good. But can they compete? Unquestionably.
  5. The Suns have no reason to feel intimidated by the Spurs, subconsciously or otherwise. Others will say Phoenix needs to beat San Antonio in a playoff series for the “hex” to be broken, but I think this win gives the Suns confidence they can do that, if they didn’t have it before.
  6. It’s way too early to write off the Suns as legitimate contenders.

The key, of course, is if the Suns can build on Sunday’s win. I’d like to see them blow out Memphis, a team they should clobber, tonight with a wire-to-wire display of superiority on both ends of the floor, then reel off a series of wins that showcase their ability to play in both the open court and half-court, in blowouts and hard-fought battles, games where they need to make stops and do it. The time when it’s okay to lay eggs, as in following up the defeat of Boston a few weeks ago with a blowout by Detroit, is over.

Otherwise, what I feel is one of the biggest regular season wins in team history becomes what all the Doubting Dinos out there believe: Just one game.

College Hoops and Broadcasting Legends

Football, baseball, hockey, boxing, golf, Olympics – if it was on
television, I watched it and logged all the action so that highlights
could be selected, found and edited for the local sports news broadcast.

However, my natural immersion in the NBA season has over the years nudged out interest in most other sports. Of all the sports I used to watch but no longer find or make the time to follow (other than the Cubs, who I do still try to follow, but watch very few actual games), I miss college basketball the most.

I used to run our tournament pool in the sports department. I had brackets of all manner of stages and predictions posted on my wall like a detective solving a crime. Okay, so I never came close to winning the thing, but it was a great time.

Every year I vow to actually know who’s in the polls, which teams are on the bubble and know at least enough to have no surprises when the seedings for the tournament are announced.

Every year I’m surprised when I read that this team or that team is playing for a conference championship. And this morning, I was positively confounded to discover that Drake would be playing Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference’s title game in St. Louis. While I’m not an alumnus of ISU, I did attend school there my freshman year.

Al McCoy, an alum of Drake himself, and I had talked earlier in the season, when his Bulldog’s lost to my brother’s Bradley Braves, the only other time I’d paid attention to college hoops this season. So, when I got to the arena this morning for the Suns-Spurs game, I sought out the Voice of the Suns to get his take on the game.

Ironically, I found him in the Al McCoy Media Center, eating lunch with fellow Suns’ broadcaster Gary Bender. When I told him I had a connection to his team’s opponent, he told me that Illinois State’s Jim Durham was doing the play-by-play on the Suns’ game for ESPN Radio and was in the building, as well.

Durham, who I listened to for years as the Bulls’ announcer with Johnny “Red” Kerr, approached as if on cue and asked if the game was on television. Indeed it was and I stood with McCoy and Durham and watched as Drake went on an early run to take a 14-9 lead.

The two broadcasting legends discussed making a whopping five dollar bet on the contest, but I’m not sure if the deal was ever finalized.

Bender was hedging bets on which one of them would mention the game on the air during their Suns’ game broadcast.

“I’m sure it will be mentioned if the right team wins,” Bender said.

“Yes, it will,” chimed in Durham. They all laughed, but McCoy had the last laugh, as Drake pounded Illinois State to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971.

But more importantly, I now know a team that has made it to March Madness. Bring on Selection Sunday, whenever that is.

Final Analysis

Sometimes we just need to be reminded of things. Sunday’s big win over the Evil Empire was a reminder that the Suns didn’t, in fact, forget how to play like a championship caliber team.

 

Eddie Johnson is able to give expert analysis during games because of his skill in shooting when he played. (NBAE Photos)

And perhaps a reminder that we all should have listened to Mike D’Antoni, Steve Kerr – even Shaq himself – when they said there would be some adjustments necessary to fully incorporate the Big Cactus.

I had another reminder a few nights ago as we began the 4th quarter of a home game against the 76ers. During the preceding timeout the Gorilla squad had inadvertently ripped the net off one of the hoops. There was a short delay as U.S. Airways Center engineers quickly replaced the net. Eddie Johnson immediately told Gary Bender and all the viewers watching FSN Arizona that he hated when a net had to be replaced during a game. Since the net would take a little while to get stretched out to its usual size, EJ said that the rim always looked smaller and it became a psychological detriment to any shooters on the floor. Phoenix went scoreless for the first 3 minutes and made a total of 3 FGs over the first 9 minutes of the quarter. Who else but a shooter (and were there any better?) would offer that nugget of insight? It was another example of the expert analysis Suns fans receive every night from the duo of Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle.

Having worked in sports television for over 18 years, I’ve crossed paths with countless announcers. One thing I’ve noticed over that time is that you can learn a lot about someone by how their peers react toward them. I call it the RQ – Respect Quotient. Wherever Dan and EJ go with the Suns, they are universally respected for their knowledge of the game, the tenacious style they both brought to the court and, yes, even the fact that they are really genuine human beings. The only analyst I’ve worked with that comes close to the RQ of Dan and EJ is former Chicago Bears defensive back Doug Plank. His goes beyond respect, though. I think guys that played against Doug still avoid him as if they think he might drop them in the lobby of a hotel or stadium press box. [Read more...]

Sky May Not Be Falling After Win Over Spurs

Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal willed the Suns to victory on Sunday. (NBAE Photos)

There’s been a trend of late toward declaring them DBFA (dead BEFORE) arrival and gloomily fearing they might not even live long enough to make the playoffs, let alone lay an egg in them.

So if nothing else, this victory over the defending champions should lighten the mood in these parts a bit and alter the silly perception that the Suns have been morphing into the Miami Heat before our very eyes.

Having said that, one does not want to make the mistake of rushing to judgment in the other direction on the basis of one win, however impressive it was. The Suns are still a work in progress, and it’s still too soon to declare their makeup either a success or a failure.

But forget the future for the moment. This was a very satisfying present. It was a second straight game in which Shaq delivered some big time numbers, a game in which the Suns played some surprisingly stout defense, a game in which for a change the Suns made the big shots and stops down the stretch instead of the Spurs.

It was a game in which Grant Hill hit a huge jumper and Tim Duncan missed a lay-up in a tide-turning sequence very late, a game in which the Spurs missed 56 shots and hit only 35 percent from the field, a game in which The Big ICBM (aka Shaq) launched his 7-5, 235-body into the third row of seats in pursuit of a loose ball, and a game that had playoff intensity all over it from start to finish.

It was also, if the truth be told, a game which was won by the most desperate team because, even as the Suns attributed a loss in Denver last week at least partly to the fact the Nuggets need a victory more than they did, this result could be said to be at least in part to the fact the Suns needed it much more than did the Spurs.

Amare Stoudemire and Shaq (aka Mr. Inside and Mr. Even Further Inside) dominated the boards and scored 30 points between the two despite being plagued by foul problems, and Mr. Outside (aka Steve Nash) hit his only two threes at a critical juncture (i.e.—the intersection between win and don’t win), while scoring 19 points and handing out 14 assists.

Still, this department’s MCGB (most coveted game ball) goes to Hill, who had 18 points on 9 for 13 shooting, kept the Suns in touch with 5 for 5 shooting in the second period, and hit the aforementioned huge jumper with 1:15 left on the heels of Duncan’s missed lay-up to give the Suns a three-point lead.

As for defense, while I don’t attribute all of San Antonio’s uncharacteristic shooting woes to it, the Suns were very aggressive and more than met Coach Mike’s goal of at least slowing somebody down.

The bottom line: The sky may still be a bit cloudy, but it most definitely is not falling.

Suns Fall Short in Fourth Quarter

The Suns were like an infielder who plays every hop right except the last one.

Gordon Giricek played his former team, the PMah Jazz, on Friday night.

(NBAE Photos)

They led by five at the end of the first period, they led by seven at the end of the second period, and they led by nine at the end of the third period. But alas, a defense which had hardly been invincible up until then went invisible down the stretch, and the Jazz hit them with a 41-point fourth period on 75 percent shooting and a 12-4 wipeout on the boards. And it also didn’t help that the Jazz, who missed 5 of their 10 free throws in the first period hit 15 of their 16 in the fourth.

The villain of this piece, at least for the Jazz, was Kyle Korver, a shooter who has been instrumental in turning PMah’s season around in the right direction since coming over from Philadelphia via the trade route. He certainly turned this game around in the fourth period, going 3 for 3 from the field and 7 for 7 from the line while scoring all 14 of his points in the final period.

This late blast tended to overshadow the fact Amare Stoudemire had a huge night, Shaquille O’Neal had a very large one and Steve Nash looked a lot more like his old self.

Stoudemire had 37 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and what looked at the time like a game-saving steal. But even more impressive than those numbers is how much he has expanded his game both in terms of more shooting range and moving so well without the ball.

It was no secret from the day he got here that if a guy as big and fast as Amare ever learned a little patience and how to pick his spots, with and without the ball, that he would really be something. Well, he has, and he IS really something!

As for Shaq, who some critics of The Trade seem to think came to Phoenix not by air but by wheelchair, he had 20 points and 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just 31 minutes. And if you had told anybody the day The Trade was made that if Shaq could put up those kinds of numbers, the would have said you could start engraving the Championship Trophy right now.

Unfortunately, while The Big Cactus has helped the Suns even more on offense than had been expected by all but the most incorrigible optimists, he has had considerably less impact than expected on defense.

This is not to say the deplorable state of the team’s defense is all Shaq’s fault, or even mostly his. But there’s no getting around the fact that, while his bulk still makes him a load at one end of the floor, his reduced mobility makes him a target at the other.

This is one reason Coach Mike says (maybe “pleads”, or even “begs” would be more le mot juste), “We’ve got to find a way to defend a LITTLE.

I take this to mean that either Coach has bitten the bite of reality and lowered his sights – just last week he was asking his team to find ways to STOP (italics are mine) somebody – or he likes his retooled offense enough now to think just slowing opponents down will be sufficient.

Obviously it wasn’t last night, but then the fact the Jazz are the best shooting team in the league might have had something to do with that.

And for me at least, I think there was somewhat more reason to be optimistic than pessimistic. In any case, whether you’re a half full glass or a half empty one, it is STILL to soon to either bury the season or pronounce the trade the worst transaction since the Native Americans traded Manhattan to the United States for next to nothing. Or more recently, when Memphis traded Pau Gasol for less than nothing.

The bottom line: My advice to Suns fans who are on the disabled list either from leaping on and off bandwagons or leaping to conclusions is to be a little less athletic for the time being.

Suns Still Have a Lot of Work To Do Before Playoffs

Amare Stoudemire dunks against the Sixers on Saturday night.

(NBAE Photos)

Don’t let those last-second heroics that gave the Suns a prayer fool you. The plain truth is they were outplayed almost wire to wire by the lightly regarded Sixers, sometimes embarrassingly so.

The Sixers scored 119 points on 57 percent shooting, moving Coach Mike to grumble, “At some point we’re going to have to stop SOMEBODY.”

Last night, alas, to put it accurately but ungrammatically, they couldn’t stop NOBODY.

Bear in mind this is the same Sixers team that missed its first 14 shots at Golden State Friday night, and arrived in the Valley averaging 95 points and shooting 45 percent from the field.

The conventional wisdom is the Suns are understandably going through a period of adjustment to incorporate Shaquille O’Neal into their operations, and the players themselves are saying it’s bound to take a little time to get everybody on the same page (or even decide what page that should be).

And I buy most of that. Indeed, one has to bear in mind that Shaq was brought here to fix the Suns’ playoff wagon, not the regular season wagon. And the success or failure of the trade will hinge entirely on how the team plays in postseason.

But while what happens now means next to nothing, how it’s happening can be a tad disturbing. Technical adjustments can and will be made, but what appears to be a lack of fire and confidence may be a taller order.

I still think the Shaq deal had to be made, and that it will eventually make the team more playoff worthy, but no amount of “adjusting” is going to fix the defense. That’s a matter of energy, hard work, and attitude, and these items seem to be in rather short supply in these parts of late.

Of course, one would like to think this is because the team is doing so much thinking and fretting about offensive adjustments caused by Operation Shaq — that it’s not only sapping some of the defensive energy but exposing it to even more woe than usual. (Translation: Out of whack offenses can give up points too).

The bottom line: There’s absolutely no need to push the panic button. But hey, it wouldn’t hurt to locate exactly where it is, just in case of an emergency.