Shaquille O’Neal has brought the fun back into the Suns’ game – and it’s translating into wins. (NBAE Photos)
Talk radio blared with fans ready to jump off a ledge, internet message boards ran amok with Mike Kryzewski wannabees and even the national media roundly killed the Phoenix front office for making, as one scribe wrote, “the worst trade in pro sports history.” Hmmmmm.
What a difference a couple of weeks can make. The Suns have not just won 7 straight, but have won them in a multitude of impressive ways. They beat the Evil Empire two weeks ago in a playoff-style slugfest that has become the Spurs’ calling card, holding Duncan and Co. to a measly two points over the final 5:30. A few nights later the Suns outran the fastest team in the league, pasting the Warriors with a 10-0 3rd quarter run that Golden State never recovered from. Mixed in with those wins were a couple of boat races that were over by halftime – the Suns led Memphis and Sacramento by 31 points (each) at the intermission. Are you kidding me? I know Memphis is having a rough season, but Sacramento just beat the Lakers in LA and it is unbelievably difficult to post a 30-point lead in the NBA. The players are too good and pro athletes in general have way too much pride to take a beating like that. Saturday’s dismantling of Houston was the latest indication of how good this Suns team can be. The Rockets are fresh off the 2nd longest winning streak in NBA history at 22 games – something none of Jordan’s Chicago, Magic’s LA or Bird’s Boston teams could do – and they looked more like a lottery team against Phoenix than a true title contender.
I’m sure you can see how Shaq’s conditioning has improved since his arrival, and Steve Nash has figured out how to exploit the nightly mismatches with a huge post presence at his disposal. You’ve certainly noticed how much Amaré Stoudemire has responded to being moved back to his comfort zone at power forward (28.8 PTS, 9.3 REBS, 57% FGs – 7 games of 30+ PTS since the All-Star break) and the respect he has for his new mentor. Grant Hill and Raja Bell have been outstanding defensively and are consistently shutting down great scorers (Brandon Roy – 3/14 FGs, Monta Ellis – 8/22 FGs, Manu Ginobilli – 7/19 FGs, Tracy McGrady – 11/31 FGs). But I think the biggest change of all doesn’t show up in any box score or stat line. At the beginning of this season, Mike D’Antoni told his team that this title quest they’ve been on over the last 3+ seasons is a journey that should be enjoyed, not just a destination to be sought. And although the Suns sat atop the toughest conference in NBA history (Denver is on pace to win 49 games and not make the playoffs – unprecedented!) when they made the Big Trade, they ranked near the bottom on the Fun Meter. And that’s what Shaq has changed. Following the world’s greatest crowd dive against San Antonio, Shaq sent the Suns’ bench scurrying like cockroaches when the light gets flipped on by chasing a rebound in their direction against Memphis. Last Tuesday in Portland, he followed up a blocked shot with a Brett Favre post route to Boris Diaw for a dunk, then erupted towards the bench in a show of emotion that brought the house down. A few minutes later he shook off 3 Blazers after another low-post mugging and walked over to greet Portland owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen with a handshake and smile. Classic Shaq – tough as nails between the lines, but truly just a big kid living the dream.
An Eastern Conference gauntlet awaits the Suns this week with Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Phoenix will have a little payback in mind for the Pistons after a humiliating home loss a few weeks ago. Boston has the best record in the NBA, Philly has played very well lately (remember the March 1st game in Phoenix?) and New Jersey is the second night of a back-to-back set and has a new point guard that has always been a tough matchup for Nash. It should be a pretty good measuring stick as the playoffs draw closer – and it’s guaranteed must see TV.