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.

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