O-Beard-Tuary

Although tempting to list the causes of death as poisonous home cooking, a Haq’d Shaq, and injuries sustained by being repeatedly flopped upon, the official culprits are gaping, bleeding wounds in the defensive middle, severe inflammation of the fumble fingers, and a serious case of psych-out Spurs-itis.

After falling gravely ill late last week, Beechen’s beard made a brief recovery over the weekend but, said one of the physicians treating the case, “it was too much of an uphill climb.”

The physician called himself “puzzled and heartbroken” by the case. “It’s especially frustrating because we’ve seen so many similar cases over the last few years in Phoenix. We know the cure for Spurs-itis exists outside the Phoenix area – we’ve seen it work in other cities – but for some reason, we can’t manage a cure here.” It was hoped that the February addition of a giant antibody to the system might strengthen the playoff beard prior to the postseason, but those hopes proved unfounded.

The beard was disposed of in a private ceremony over a sink in Los Angeles late Thursday night.

Adam Beechen requests, in lieu of flowers, that donations in the form of vehement rooting support be delivered to the New Orleans Hornets.

Two Down

After the first two games of the Suns/Spurs series, this playoff beard needs to be a rally beard.

Here’s how I have spent my playoffs thus far: For Saturday’s Game 1, I was in an Urgent Care facility in central Phoenix, having arrived in town Thursday with a 102-degree fever and severe chills. It was right around the time the physician’s assistant diagnosed me with acute bronchitis that I checked my Blackberry and saw the final score of the game (Inexplicably, the television in the lobby was tuned to the Disney Channel).

For Game 2, I was again home in Los Angeles, stretched out on my couch, having consumed a giant bowl of matzoball soup for lunch, feeling a smidge better, certain that a Suns victory in Game 2 would push me ‘round the corner toward full recovery. Two and a half hours later, the Suns were in an 0-2 hole, and I was doubting the curative powers of “Jewish penicillin.”

Now, the situation – neither the Suns nor my own – isn’t fatal. Teams are supposed to win at home, and that’s all the Spurs have done. They’ve taken care of business on their own floor, and now the Suns are on their way back to the Valley to see if they can’t do the same. The Spurs deserve a good deal of credit – the Suns had them in deep holes in both games, and the defending champs showed the grit and resolve that’s won them so many trophies over the years. In short, they played like champions when they most needed to.

But oh, the chances the Suns squandered! The leads that got away…The easy baskets given up in the paint…The uncharacteristic mental lapses…The turnovers at the most inopportune times…The missed free throws down the stretch…It’s enough to make you want to throw a matzoball through your flat screen.

The Suns had all of their big men in foul trouble in Game 1, and still they were right there. Tim Duncan riddled them for forty points and fifteen rebounds, and still, the Suns were right there. In front of a hostile crowd and facing years of playoff heartbreak, the Suns were right there. And they couldn’t close the deal.

In Game 2, the Suns had the specter of Game 1 looming over their shoulder, and they came out roaring. They played the first half with heart, focus and intensity. They commanded the tempo, the big men played aggressively, cautiously, but above all, effectively. Once again, the Suns were right there. And again, they couldn’t close the deal.

If only NBA games had no halftime. The Spurs stormed back in the third quarter. The Suns couldn’t see, let alone find, the bottom of the net. The lead dwindled, then vanished. Suns fans around the world watched in agony as San Antonio sprinted out to the front. Suns fans around the world tore their hair out when the Spurs went to the Haq-a-Shaq in an effort to extend their lead – a perfectly legal strategy that Shaq defused by calmly hitting his charity shots under extreme duress (and may I say here that Shaq has been everything a Suns fan could have ever hoped). Suns fans moved to the edges of their seats when the Suns made a final run. They were right there.

And once again, the game slipped away.

What’s a poor, ailing, beard-growing Suns fan to do in the face of such repeated frustration?

There’s only one answer, the same answer Suns fans have told themselves since this franchise began forty years ago: Back the team even harder. Back them as they tug on the knee pads and go play Games 3 and 4. Take care of the home court. Send this back to San Antonio with the series reduced to a best-of-three, with two of those games in Texas. Where the Suns have been before. Where they know they can win.

The fat lady has not sung yet. But the Suns have to stop trying to hand her the microphone.

Playoffs 2008: Let the Beard Begin!

Go, Suns, go! Grow, beard, grow!

It’s a superstition and a sign of focus: Nothing other than the team matters. Chores such as shaving can wait for another day when the important work of winning a title is completed, one way or the other (I’m assuming showering remains a priority, but I’m not getting close enough to any of those guys to ask them). In the NHL, where the playoffs last even longer than in the NBA, if you can believe that, you wind up with some pretty scraggly looking guys. They don’t care how they look. It’s all about the team, and if they bring home the trophy, then every stray chin follicle was worth it.

In the spirit of that level of commitment, I’ve decided to grow a Phoenix Suns 2008 Playoff Beard. The regular season ends Wednesday night. Thus, Wednesday morning will be the last day I shave until the Suns are eliminated from the playoffs or are crowned champions. I’ll be documenting my journey periodically with photos so you can see how it’s coming along. Attached to this blog will be the first photo – me, clean-shaven except for my short mustache and beard (which I ain’t shaving so I can start clean – I’ve had this thing for fifteen years and it’s not going anywhere…except that it’s going to get longer, obviously).

I’ve recently started a new job. I’m seeing someone. And in the next week, I’ll be going to two Passover seders. In short, now’s probably a time for me to be pretty concerned about my appearance. But these are the playoffs, these are the Suns, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to support them. If the Suns extend their run into June, I could start looking like a replacement guitarist for ZZ Top. Fine. It’s about the team.

I’m leading with my chin.

Who Could Ask For More?

Amare Stoudemire scored forty-one points in the Suns’ comeback win over the Nuggets on Monday.
(NBAE Photos)

After the opening tip, the Suns roared out to a twenty-two point deficit. They gave up seventy points in the first half. They let the Nuggets shoot an ungodly percentage from the field. Carmelo Anthony made baskets off face-up jumpers, spin-arounds, and grand jetés. J.R. Smith threw up and made shots from behind the backboard, the seat of his pants, Rawhide and Show Low. Kenyon Martin was so alone under the basket on several occasions, he actually started crying because he thought no one loved him. Even Marcus Camby got in on the act, venturing out to eighteen feet from the rim to see what it was like out there, and heaving up set shots that found the bottom of the net like Daniel Plainview unerringly tracking down oil.

On the bright side, Denver’s Yakhouba Diawara didn’t hurt the Suns, but that’s only because he played a meager twenty-three seconds.

Meanwhile, the Suns were clanging shots off the rim like Quasimodo on Jolt Cola (Bing Bong Bong Bing Bing Bing Bong), acting as though switching on defense was a crime punishable by revocation of their road trip per diem, and treating boxing out on the defensive glass as the basketball equivalent of eating spinach covered with castor oil.

At halftime, the Suns were down nineteen on their home court. And if you’re a long-time Sun-worshipper like me, you knew what was coming: A scream-salvo from Coach Mike D’Antoni in the locker room, a briefly renewed commitment to rebounding, defense and smart decision-making on offense, followed by a spirited third quarter run to bring the Suns within ten, getting as close as maybe three midway through the fourth quarter before running out of gas and losing by eight.

Many times in their forty-year history, the Suns have been accused of lacking “toughness.” And they’ve been confused about what that term meant. They went out and acquired muscle man after muscle man, only to still be considered “soft.” Remember Truck Robinson? A guy named “Truck” has to make you tougher, right (unless it’s an ice cream truck, I guess)? Remember Maurice Lucas? The only man to make the name “Maurice” sound tough. Remember Xavier McDaniel? Trust me, with hair, he was even tougher. No, whatever “toughness” meant, these guys didn’t make the organization live up to the definition.

“Toughness,” it turns out, means the ability to grind. The ability to get mad. The ability to look adversity in the face and take your game up a notch, under control, with purpose, and get the job done. The ability to hit shots, get stops and make plays when you absolutely need them – and then do it again on the next possession, and the next, and the next.

Since Steve Nash arrived, the Suns have shown flashes of it. His playoff heroics are legendary, but even he hasn’t been able to get the Suns to the brass ring. But now…Watching him pull up on the break for a three-pointer, I’m actually more surprised when he doesn’t make it in a clutch situation than when he does. He was eight of twelve from downtown last night, most of them coming, it seemed, as the Suns were taking over the game and building a double-digit lead. I don’t remember the four misses, do you? Usually, when Nash has to score a lot of points, it means the Suns are in dire straits, that he doesn’t have much company on the offensive end, and the Suns aren’t likely to win.

But did you see Amaré last night? Forty-one points, fourteen rebounds, eight of them offensive. Seventeen of nineteen from the free throw line. One turnover. After a silly double-technical foul shared with the Nuggets’ Nenê, Amare simply went….well…”berserk under control” is the only way I can describe it. Playing completely within the offense, he didn’t take a bad shot, took what the offense gave him, and roared down the lane time and time again for ridiculously easy layups. I know the Nuggets aren’t the best defensive team in the league, but I swear to you, they looked scared. On one Amaré drive, all five Nuggets simultaneously and “coincidentally” went looking for their Gatorade bottles. Hmm. There’s been a lot of local talk about Amaré for MVP this season. Unquestionably, he has the numbers to back that up, and his play since the Shaq trade has been better than anyone else in the league at any position. Personally, I think Amaré has so much talent around him, it’s going to be hard for him to win over the majority of MVP voters, and it’ll still come down to Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Kevin Garnett. But of those guys, you can’t tell me Amaré’s not having a better year than KG…which makes him the best big man alive at the moment.

Of course, the Suns now have one of the best big men in history stationed underneath the hoop in one Shaquille O’Neal. And let’s face it, sports fans, he’s been everything we could have asked for. The Suns didn’t need him to get thirty points and twenty rebounds every night. But oh, how nice it is to see an enemy shot go up, and know that we have a Shaquille under the rim to likely collect the rebound when we actually need it. Oh, how nice it is to see the ball delivered into the low post, into Shaq’s giant mitts, and know that two points will likely soon follow. Oh, how nice it is to see opponents manage to get past perimeter defenders and then get that nervous look on their face when they see the Diesel waiting for them in the lane. And oh, oh, oh, how nice it is to see the Big Fella hit free throws, which he’s been doing far more often than not, since he arrived in the desert!

Last night, with playoff positioning on the line with every possession, the Suns needed giant helpings of toughness, and not of the “hard foul” kind. They needed the toughness that comes with looking around the locker room and asking for something more from yourself and the players around you. They needed the toughness of sustained, push-through-it clutch effort. And they scored eighty-one points in the second half, forty-six in the final quarter, and blew the Nuggets halfway back up Pike’s Peak. When they needed it, the Suns delivered to themselves. And that’s toughness.

But it’s one thing to do it for a quarter and a half. Phoenix needs to come through with that kind of effort now for eight more regular season games. And then however many games in the playoffs it’ll take for the Suns to win the championship. There can be no letdown. It’s going to be very, very tough. But that’s okay.

These Suns can do tough.

Campaign Season

<“I’m Adam Beechen’s mother, and I approved this message…because Adam promised me he’d come home for Passover if I did. Don’t forget the matzo, honey!”

Kevin Johnson could use the fact that he dunked on Hakeem Olajuwon as one of his campaign slogans. (NBAE Photos)

* * *

As the Suns wind up their campaign toward the NBA playoffs, having finally seemed to jell around this new guy O’Neal (who really fills out a uniform), and this other new guy, Giricek, another former Sun is also knee-deep in a campaign of his own. That would be Ring of Honor member Kevin Johnson, who’s running for Mayor of Sacramento.

(First of all, how can KJ be old enough to run for anything? He still looks as fresh-faced as the day he arrived in the Valley. I find it very hard to believe he’s 42.)

Now, anyone who saw Kevin play basketball knows he doesn’t need any help running for any reason. But we’re Phoenix, we back our sons and our Suns, so here are a few campaign slogans for you, KJ, feel free to use them or not as you see fit:

“SOLID LEADERSHIP ON ANY KIND OF FLOOR – JOHNSON FOR MAYOR!”

“VOTE KJ – IMPROVE SACRAMENTO’S FREE-THROW PERCENTAGE BY SIXTY PERCENT!”

“FASTER THAN THE OTHER CANDIDATE – GUARANTEED!”

“I DUNKED ON OLAJUWON, GUARDED JORDAN IN THE FINALS AND HAD A LOCKER NEXT TO BARKLEY…YOU THINK I CAN’T HANDLE CITY COUNCIL?”

All of which got me thinking, just in case any of the current Suns wanted to take a run at any vacant political offices, I’ve got a few more slogans that might be of use:

“EXPERIENCE, DETERMINATION AND PROFESSIONALISM…VOTE GRANT HILL!”

“RAJA BELL, MINISTER OF DEFENSE – CHECK YOUR BALLOT BEFORE HE CHECKS YOU!”

“A MAN WHO TAKES CHARGE ON OUR COURT – NASH FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL!”

“SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR…AND ANYWHERE ELSE HE WANTS TO BE – AMARE STOUDEMIRE!”

“VOTE BORIS DIAW FOR ANY POSITION YOU LIKE.”

“GORDAN GIRICEK FOR DIRECTOR OF INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES – THE GOOD KINDS, THE ONES WORTH THREE POINTS.”

“YOU MIGHT AS WELL VOTE FOR LEANDRO BARBOSA…YOU SURE CAN’T BEAT HIM.”

“MIKE D’ANTONI FOR PRESIDENT – HE CAN TAKE THE HEAT!”

“SHAQUILLE O’NEAL FOR MAYOR – YOU WANT TO TELL HIM NO?”

And Al McCoy will serve as Speaker of the House – a lifetime post.

In all seriousness, Kevin Johnson, as has been well-documented has done even more good work off the court than he did on the court which, frankly, is hard to believe, given how well he played for the purple and orange. Shooting, passing, defending, serving as a public face for a franchise in the years immediately following a terrible scandal, KJ did it all for the Suns. Now, his St. Hope Academy in Sacramento has helped countless kids, at-risk or not. KJ has dedicated his post-hoops life, as he did much of his life while he was playing, to making the world a better place to live in.

It’s a shame they don’t let Phoenicians vote in Sacramento elections. He’d be a shoo-in.

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.

A Brief History of Franchise Centers

The Suns finally have a bona-fide franchise center.� Will he lead the team to its first ring? (NBAE Photos)

Sure, maybe not a bona-fide franchise center at the peak of his powers, but the Suns have never, ever, had a pivotman the caliber of Shaquille O’Neal. And we’re talking forty years here. They’ve had good centers (Neal Walk, Mark West), and great players playing out of position (Alvan Adams, Amare Stoudemire), but never a guy who commands the attention, whose very presence alters a game, like Shaq.

Every year on draft day, whenever a franchise center was coming out of college or high school, the Suns were like kids at some other child’s birthday party. It’s only so much fun to watch them open their gaudy new presents, knowing you’re maybe going home with a party hat or, if you’re lucky, a noisemaker.

Here, let’s hop in my trusty Suns Way-Back Machine and trace the course of Phoenix’s tangled history with franchise centers. As you’ll see, it’s been a trail of “just misses” and of being too good to merit picking high enough to grab a superduperstar.

1968: In their inaugural year, the Suns are given a middle-round draft slot by the league, keeping them from taking famous oak stump Wes Unseld, who’d go on to win the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player award.

1969: Everyone knows this one. Lew Alcindor, coming out of UCLA and headed for the most famous name-change in basketball history (sorry, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), is the target for both the Suns and expansion brothers Milwaukee. Milwaukee wins the coin flip, and the Suns take Neal Walk and then win the rights to Connie Hawkins. Both of whom, while not adding up to one Abdul-Jabbar, nevertheless help make the Suns good enough to miss out on…

1970: …Bob Lanier. And Dave Cowens. Sigh.

1974: Having passed the peak years of Neal Walk’s career, the Suns would have loved to land a franchise center in this draft. However, they weren’t quite stinky enough, and could only watch division rivals Portland snap up Bill Walton. It’s Portland’s second number one overall pick in three years, by the way. Good for them. Couldn’t happen to a lovelier city. No, really, we’re happy for you.

1975: The Suns fill their center void with future Rookie of the Year, future All-Star, and future Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams. A sensation his first year because of his versatility, quickness and the matchup problems he provided opposing centers, foes soon turned the tables, and Alvan would come to have just as much trouble with them as they did with him. Essentially playing out of position his entire career, today Alvan would likely be a small forward…or a big guard (he was that good a ballhandler, shooter and passer).

1976: With Alvan manning the post, the Suns don’t feel the need to trade up to go after some kid from a school called Centenary named Robert Parish, preferring to stay two spots behind and pick up Ronnie Lee. The Suns may not have gotten a franchise center, but they unquestionably got the better Afro.

1980: Hype surrounds the professional debut of Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, the consensus top pick and purported next great middle man. The Suns aren’t players in this draft, having no first-round pick, but they’d have the great joy of seeing Mr. Carroll in a purple and orange uniform some years later, after he spectacularly flamed out in a blaze of wasted potential. He didn’t rediscover that potential in Phoenix, either, and Suns fans saw up close how he earned his nickname, “Joe Barely Cares.”

1983: Ralph Sampson! Everybody wanted this guy. Seven-feet-, four-inches tall, with a guard’s ballhandling abilities and limitless athleticism. Alas, the Suns didn’t have a first rounder this year either, but it’s just as well – their center position was in the good hands of James (Buddha) Edwards, who never took a shot when he wasn’t fading away from the basket, never averaged more than 8.5 rebounds per game in a season, and was most famous for being the last player to convincingly wear a Fu Manchu mustache.

1984: Houston gets a little of that Portland luck, getting the first pick all over again, and getting themselves a second franchise center in two years, Akeem (I’d Like To Buy An H, Pat) Olajuwon. Keep track of these Houston franchise centers. There’s more to come.

1985: Patrick Ewing just happens to be available in the first year of the NBA draft lottery! So where do the Suns find themselves? Picking just outside the lottery at number ten.

1986: Brad Daugherty? Who needs him?! The Suns, picking sixth, draft a bona fide, big-time, franchise-potential center named…William Bedford. Here’s my William Bedford story: One afternoon shortly after the draft, I’m shooting baskets at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center. In walks Suns Assistant Coach Al Bianchi with Suns star forward Larry Nance and young master Bedford. Bianchi watches them play one-on-one to assess the magnitude of the Suns’ newest megatalent. After Nance has flattened Bedford’s soft scalp with a series of dunks, poor Mr. Bianchi punches himself in the eye seventeen straight times (figuratively speaking, of course). Bedford winds up in Detroit where, naturally, he wins a championship ring as a benchwarmer.

1987: The Suns have their highest pick since they year of Almost-Lew…and it’s still not quite high enough to snag David Robinson. But it’s not all bad…Picking second, the Suns still managed to wind up with Armon Gilliam! Why aren’t you smiling?

1992: We have to wait a while for the next batch of franchise centers, and two of them turn up this year – Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. But the Suns are smack in the middle of a great run, anchored by the legendary Chambers-KJ-Majerle nucleus, and hey, they’ve just picked up Charles Barkley besides. So there’s no way the Suns are bad enough to qualify for either of the above super prospects. Nevertheless, the Suns manage to land a center loaded with potential near the end of the first round: Oliver Miller. Unfortunately, the Big O was also loaded with about sixty extra pounds. There’s no telling how far Oliver might have gone in his career had he stayed in shape – but that’s because he ate the road in front of him.

1997: San Antonio snags the top pick and the right to select Tim Duncan, which is only fair because, hey, it’s only been ten years since they selected their last franchise big man. The Suns sit out the first round entirely, possibly in protest of the injustice of it all.

1998: Michael Olowokandi. Okay, sometimes it’s all right not to have the first pick overall.

2001: Kwame Brown. See 1998.

2002: Remember when I said to watch this space for another Houston sighting? Well, here comes Yao Ming. That makes three franchise centers in fewer than 20 years! Anyone want to join me in a good primal scream?

2004: Dwight Howard. Sigh. Can’t you picture him playing alongside Amare Stoudemire, reducing opponents’ arenas to rubble every night? Why do we have to be so freaking good all the time that we miss out on players like this?! (I’m not really angry about it – I’m thrilled we’ve had a team of such consistent high quality to root for, but still…Rrrgh!)

2007: Well, welcome back, Portland. We were worried you’d led Houston and San Antonio keep having all the fun. Here, have a Greg Oden.

So there you have it. After all these years, the Suns finally have one of the guys mentioned above in uniform, in a position where he really might be able to get the franchise over the hump. Here in Los Angeles, there’s been lots of gleeful hysteria over how the Shaq trade “just isn’t working out, and boy, is Phoenix in trouble!” Which, seeing as how we’re five games into the Shaq era, is a little like reviewing War and Peace after the first nine words. You don’t add a Shaquille O’Neal to an established club in mid-season and have everything flow perfectly right away. And as I’ve said before, this trade was made with April and May in mind, not February. Besides, as anyone who’s seen the Suns since the trade can tell you, while Shaq may not be Shaq circa 1994, he’s a far cry from being William Bedford. Thank goodness.

After all this analysis, I still don’t know if Shaq will help carry the Suns to their first championship and break the franchise’s “center jinx,” but my hopes are as high as they were the day of the trade. I only know one thing for certain: If another franchise, superstar center emerges from the draft…Houston, San Antonio or Portland will likely be there to greet him. Which is only fair.

A Few Questions for Mr. O'Neal

1. Who was the first Sun to buy you dinner? I’m guessing it was Sean Marks, since he’ll be facing you every day in practice.

2. What will be the best thing about playing with Steve Nash?�

����������������a. His lob passes for easy dunks?�
����������������b. His reliability as a receiver for fast break outlet passes?�
����������������c. His on-court leadership?�
����������������d. “Steve” is a lot easier to spell than “Dwyane?”

3. Who will win this year’s Super Bowl, the Patriots or the Giants? (I may be a little late with this one.)

4. Do you have any of your patented nicknames already picked out for your new teammates? If not, may I suggest the Big Fella (you), Little Big Fella (Amare Stoudemire), Big Little Fella (Steve Nash), Tough Fella (Raja Bell), Duke Fella (Grant Hill), Speedy Fella (Leandro Barbosa) and Fella From France (Boris Diaw)?

5. What was your first thought on learning you’d returned to the Pacific Division? Was it, “Oh God, now I have to go back to Sacramento more than once a year?”

6. Forget all the worries about your free throw percentage. You’re with the Suns now. How’s your three-pointer percentage?

7. Kazaam?

8. Is there any truth to the rumor that you rent out your old sneakers (size 23) as guest homes? If so, do you have any Spanish Hacienda-style high-tops available?

9. Do you know if the Suns have taken out extra Basket Support Insurance with your arrival?

10. Whose shot would you rather block spectacularly into the twelfth row, sending the shooter sprawling all the way back to half-court?�

����������������a. Kobe Bryant?�
����������������b. Tim Duncan?�
����������������c. Yao Ming?�
����������������d. Pat Riley?

11. Please answer honestly: Does this shirt make me look fat?

12. As part of your announced plan to mentor Amare Stoudemire, will the two of you room together on the road? And who will get the top bunk?

13. Are you aware of Sean Marks’ many charitable works in the community, his status as a national hero in the country of his birth, and how everyone who’s ever met him says he’s just swell, you couldn’t find a nicer guy, and nothing bad should ever happen to him? (Question submitted by Sean Marks.)

Take as much time with your answers as you need, Mr. O’Neal. Feel free to respond in between dunks over Andrew Bynum.

Everything Is Going To Be Okay

I imagine many of you are still feeling the same confusion I experienced. But consider this: Steve Kerr, David Griffin, Mike D’ Antoni and Robert Sarver are not crazy, impulsive types who would make a panic move in direct response to the Lakers’ trade for Pau Gasol last week, as is being portrayed throughout the media right now. While I can’t claim to know any of these men personally, I’ve met all of them, and my impression is these guys know basketball, and I think they know their team. Historically, the Suns are not prone to bonehead trades. Sure, there have been a few (DJ for Rick Robey??), but none in a long time. Griffin and D’Antoni have good track records in this regard, and while Kerr is the new kid on the block, my sense of him has always been that he’s got a sharp basketball mind. They wouldn’t make this deal unless they’d really thought about it, and really thought it would help the team.

Is this trade an admission that the Suns’ style of play doesn’t work? No. My hoops-savvy pal Kenji reminded me that the 1972 Lakers, which won the NBA title and set the record for consecutive wins, was very much a running team, and they did it with a center, Wilt, who was not fast. Further, the Showtime Lakers didn’t have a running center either – but rather Kareem. So I think the Suns will still run and score a lot of points.

The Suns’ biggest weaknesses in the Nash era have been defense and rebounding. Specifically, interior defense and offensive rebounding. Night after night, they have trouble handling opposing centers, doesn’t matter who. Andrew Bynum, who is admittedly emerging as a good center, eats the Suns for lunch. Al Jefferson posted consecutive career highs in points and boards against the Suns in two games this season. Even Nick Collison destroys the Suns inside. The Suns actually play pretty good perimeter defense. It’s on the inside where they get killed, by easy dunks out of the half-court set, or by put-backs.

So, the reasonable question is, why didn’t the Suns keep Kurt Thomas, who could address those issues at a fraction of the price? Well, because Kurt’s good, but he doesn’t force a team to plan their offense against him. He’s not a shot blocker, and he lacks, for lack of a better term, presence. Shaq may not be the mega-star he used to be, but when he’s healthy enough to play, there’s three things he can still do better than most centers in the league: defend, rebound and pass. The West is, obviously, loaded with centers, from Yao to Chandler to Duncan (come on, he’s a center) to Bynum to Kaman. The Suns simply haven’t had an answer for those kinds of guys this year, and it’s made it harder than in the past for the Suns to control tempo, and when they haven’t been able to control tempo, they’ve been cooked. Shaq gives them a viable presence in the low post on both defense and offense, something the Suns haven’t had since Danny Schayes (kidding).

Steve Nash is 34. Grant Hill is 36. Amare is 25, but has had three knee surgeries. The Suns aren’t thinking about long-term success here — It’s all or nothing time. Shawn Marion is a fabulous player, and I won’t bash him on his way out of town, but while he offers a lot of superlative skills in a lot of different areas, of the Suns’ old core (Nash, Marion, Stoudemire), his skills were the easiest to replace at reasonably close to the same level. The Suns will miss him most on defense, but Shaq should take up some of the slack there, Diaw is underrated on defense, and Hill has shown commitment to that end of the court. The Suns still have plenty of guys to finish on the break (and now Amare can be one of them, as he won’t be called on to rebound as much), and plenty of three-point shooters.

The key phrase in all of this, of course, is “if Shaq can stay healthy.” Recent history, in all honesty, doesn’t suggest he can. He’s played fourteen seasons, and has played four games since the end of December. Even when he has been “healthy” this year, his numbers have been down across the board, suggesting he may have more little things nagging at him than just a bad hip. But reports are that he’s at as low a weight as he’s been in a while, and aside from the hip, in good condition. He’s not going to play a lot for the Suns right away, and he may not help them win games right away. I predict a lot of impatience and second-guessing around the Suns for the next few weeks.

I think the Suns might be willing to sacrifice the top seed in the Western Conference. Look what it did for Dallas last year, and this season, the West is so tight that the top 8 teams will be practically interchangeable. I think the Suns can easily win enough games, with or without Shaq, to secure a playoff spot on sheer talent alone. I think the team will severely limit Shaq’s minutes in the regular season, resting him often, maybe for several games at a time, in order to let him acclimate and recover as best he can for the playoffs. I think the hope is he’ll play just enough to develop chemistry with his teammates, and them with him, to get to know his role in and become comfortable with the team’s schemes. During the regular season, he’ll play most against the teams with centers the Suns could likely meet in the playoffs, but even then, they’ll limit him to 20-25 minutes. In the playoffs, they’ll hope he’ll be reasonably fresh and can be a factor.

In the meantime, the Suns will slide Amare back to power forward, where he should dominate and run. A lot. Diaw will likely start at the small forward spot, and he’s played much better lately as a starter. He seems to thrive on starter’s minutes – as proved in last night’s game against New Orleans. Grant Hill will come off the bench, which he’s shown he’s more than willing to do. There’s a scenario in which this could all work out. It’s a gamble, but it could work. High risk carries high reward.

Down the line, the Suns will rebuild around Amare, Barbosa and, presumably, Diaw, which is still a better-than-decent core. But this deal was made strictly for this May and June. Not for the years after, and not, I don’t think, for February, March and April. People will be quick to call it a success or failure right away or in a few weeks, but the real results won’t be seen until May and June.

Can you dig it?

The No-Win Situation

Sure, they may score more points than the Spurs, in which case their victory tally will increase by one, but no one outside the greater Phoenix area (and maybe even some people within it) will acknowledge it as a meaningful win.

If the Suns do come out on top, critics will squawk that they beat a team without their starting point guard and one of their most indispensable players, Tony Parker. Until the Suns at full strength beat San Antonio at their full strength, any victory over our esteemed rivals to the southeast will be considered hollow.

By contrast, if the Suns lose tonight, we’ll hear more of the same old, same old: The Spurs have a borderline mystical hold on Phoenix, their voodoo owing to the Spurs’ innate superior basketball IQ and tine-tested toughness, and the Suns’ much-discussed weaknesses on defense and rebounding.

The Suns just can’t win.

Every game, to some degree, has taken on that kind of frustrating atmosphere for the Suns. If they win…well, they’re supposed to win. They have a high-powered offense studded with stars and a proven system. If they lose, well, they’re soft, perennial pretenders to the throne, and maybe the system doesn’t work in the long run, and blah blah blah.

The days of the Suns being fun-to-watch underdogs surprising the league with their play are over. Now, it’s “What have you done for me lately?” time.

So, given that the Suns can’t win in the court of public opinion, they may as well focus all their attention on winning on the court. Just let people say what they will, and use the hot air as fuel for the playoff stretch drive.

Initial signs are that the Suns are doing just that. Grant Hill’s appendicitis might prove to be the biggest blessing in disguise since Dick Van Arsdale’s broken wrist in 1976. Just as that injury prompted the Suns to move Ricky Sobers into the starting lineup and reconsider Van as a primary bench piece, priming them for their unlikely moon shot, Hill’s time out of the lineup appears to have aligned Boris Diaw’s stars. As a starter, he’s played at a consistently excellent level not seen around these parts in a long time. And Grant Hill, mature enough to handle coming off the bench for a contender, gives the Suns the second-unit ball-handler they’ve been craving, as well as another explosive scorer to pair with Leandro Barbosa when Steve Nash takes a seat.

I like where the Suns are headed. I’m optimistic. I expect big things. What I don’t expect is for people to think a win tonight is anything special.

But with the beating the Suns have taken in the press and among followers of the NBA this season, every win, particularly now as eyes turn to the not-to-distant playoffs, particularly as the Suns make fine-tuning adjustments that hopefully get all their players performing at their peaks at the same time, is important.

It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.