(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

 

It has been an article of faith (or maybe hope) that the re-tooling, back-inside-the-box-thinking Suns would get better as the season went along, but who knew they’d be this good this soon?

This was by far their most impressive performance of the young season, a night when the new system produced everything it promised, namely precision offense at one end and sticky defense at the other.

This was the night the transition from run-and-gun to pass and penetrate formally took place, and what’s even more impressive; everybody seemed quite comfortable with the variations on the old system.

To show you how things have changed, the Suns scored 52 points in the paint and didn’t even attempt a three-point shot until the middle of the second period. When you hit 78 percent of your shots, which the Suns did in the first period, it obviously means you have some pretty good shooters. But it also is a sign your offense is producing some pretty good shots. And indeed, the timing and execution, which have been tentative heretofore, was crisp and confident.

Granted, this was only one game, and it would be foolish to jump to the conclusion that what we saw last night is what we’re going to get every game from now on. But the significance of this performance is that it was a dramatic demonstration of how well Coach Terry’s philosophy CAN work, and thus should make it much easier to sell to his troops.

The Suns were already leading the league in field goal accuracy, and although they cooled off after that 78 percent first period (they only hit 70 per cent for the half), they still padded the lead.

Oh, and although they didn’t launch a three in the first 18 minutes, Steve Nash hit two big ones in the last 30 seconds of the first half to push a lead that had dwindled from 19 to 11 back to 15 at intermission. And when they crept within 10 early in the fourth period Boris Diaw hit a three. In all, the Suns hit 6 of their 12 from arc city.

They were just as impressive defensively, totally taking the Pistons out of their rhythm and basically forcing them to shop for shots wherever they could find them, which resulted in 39 percent shooting. Allan Iverson, who for some reason has more trouble scoring against the Suns than he does against any other team, was particularly woeful. In fact, he would have had to improve to reach woeful, hitting only 4 of 17 shots.

And the Suns, who were already without Matt Barnes and Leandro Barbosa, did more than half of this without Shaquille O’Neil, who was ejected on a flagrant two foul while attempting to block a shot. (The officials upheld their call after reviewing the replay, but on my TV it looked like a flagrant one at worst, and there certainly was no sign of malicious intent.)

Shaq departed with 12 points and played a key role in opening up the double digit distance between the teams, and his play thus far continues to be the biggest reason to believe the Suns will most definitely be in the hunt as long as he stays healthy.

It’s almost like he somehow peeled off 10 pounds and 5 years during the summer. He’s moving better than he has in more than a year, and incredibly seems to have somehow turned back the clock to what he once was – namely a dominating force.

A system more suited to his skills undoubtedly has helped him a lot, but much of his startling resurrection has to be credited to self motivation. The book on Shaq has always been that when he’s motivated and in shape he’s the most powerful force in the game. (That’s the good news in the book on Shaq. The bad news is he hasn’t always been motivated and in shape during his career).

He’s certainly not ALL the way back to where he was in his championship years, and there still have to be concerns about injury issues at his advanced basketball age. But he’s closer to the old Shaq than anybody either in Miami or here ever thought he’d be again. He was brought here as an expensive bit player, and has been re-cast in the lead.

The bottom line: Shaq has to be one of the most surprising and meaningful story lines in the NBA to this point.

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