It was muttered amongst the media. It was silently understood by some in the locker room. It is currently being shouted by fans on the Planet Orange message boards and outside the US Airways Center. “Typical.”
The Suns/Spurs dysfunctional relationship may have hung a loss on the Suns’ record, but there are a couple differences that point to a silver lining.
The Suns showed they are ready and willing to play at the Spurs pace. San Antonio slows things down? No problem, the Suns will switch their style right with them. Sure, fans may yawn and reach for a pillow while watching Tony Parker and Tim Duncan methodically do their thing, but the Suns weren’t phased.
In fact, the Suns led the Spurs 34-20 in points in the paint. They were not shy about contact and collisions in the lane. While the Suns of old would usually threaten the Spurs from beyond the arc or on the fast break, they trailed in both categories on Christmas Day. They took less threes and scored fewer points on the break than their rivals – and they still came one three-pointer away from going home happy.
Of course, Shaq does have something to do with the toughening of the Suns. In a play that brought fans (and the Suns bench) out of their seats, Shaq found himself close to the basket, but closely guarded by the Spurs big men. Shaq rose up – with Duncan elevating right in front of him – and threw up a shot that bounced off the rim. Shaq claimed the offensive board and rose up again only to have the ball fall off the iron once more. Shaq collected another offensive rebound before deciding it was time to score. He pushed through the defenders and forced down a dunk so violent it must have lit up the switchboards in the Phoenix 911 offices.
Hush the Hack
The drama between Gregg Popovich and Shaquille O’Neal is fascinating to watch. The Spurs coach employed the controversial “Hack-A-Shaq” tactic with success during the playoffs. Fans hate it, players hate it, and of course Shaq wasn’t pleased. During the offseason he criticized the Spurs for fouling him while they held a big lead. Pop responded in the opening seconds of the 2008-09 season by telling Michael Finley to foul the Big Diesel immediately after the tip. It was the first humorous thing Pop had done since an incident in 2002 when he accidentally slipped on a banana peel.
The Spurs brought the controversy back to life in the third quarter by pulling the Hack-A-Shaq once again. The U.S. Airways Center roared with boos and even the ABC announcers were openly pulling for Shaq to get revenge. They got their Christmas wish. In the final minute of the third quarter Shaq sank five straight from the charity stripe and sent the Hack-A-Shaq trick to the bench.
It wasn’t long ago that the Suns were surrounded by questions and doubt. They’d lost four straight and were struggling to keep up with the rest of the West while finding their rhythm under Coach Porter.
The game against the Utah Jazz may prove to be the spark for the Suns centerpiece Amar’e Stoudemire.
In that game Amar’e was fierce on the boards snatching up 20 rebounds marking the fourth 20-20 game of his career. Since then, he’s proven that night was no fluke.
STAT has led the team in rebounding in eight straight games including his 13 board performance on Christmas Day. His focus on collecting missed shots has allowed the Suns more opportunities to run on the break and get easy buckets that seemed to be missing during their recent struggles.
So the Suns did officially lose a heartbreaker on Christmas Day, but they can walk away knowing they’re improving quickly. After the game Coach Porter sounded proud of his team when he said, “It hurts to play as well as we did and not get the win but if we keep playing like we did today, we’re going to be fine.”