Shaquille O’Neal jumps for the ball to begin the Suns victory over the Houston Rockets.
Where the old version got most of its power from one dynamo this one features twin dynamos, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal, aka Mr. Inside and Mr. Even Further Inside.
Last night, Amare had 36 points and 13 rebounds and set a franchise record by making all 20 of his free throws. And as the game wound down every time he made a shot the crowd broke into an “MVP…MVP…MVP” chant that had to be sweet music to his ears.
And while I know it’s a shopworn line, his numbers tell only part of the story of how much better he’s gotten in just the last three or four weeks. There just aren’t any stats to describe how he has elevated his game from star to superstar status in every respect and at both ends of the court. He always had the devastating speed to size ratio and raw power, but now he’s using them so much better. And that’s just the good news. The great news is he’s STILL improving
Indeed, when Coach Mike was asked if he was surprised Amare broke the free throw record, he replied, “Nothing he does really surprises me anymore.”
As for Shaq, he continues to post phenomenal numbers, especially when you consider he was pronounced DOA in Phoenix by many “doctors”. Last night he had 23 points and 13 boards and brushed off defenders as easily as one picks a small piece of lint off one’s suit. He also hit the surprising (no, astonishing) number of seven free throws — a feat of such rarity it inspired his teammates to go 33 for 33.
With Amare and Shaq wreaking havoc inside and Leandro Barbosa shooting like he always does when he is pressed into service as a starter, the Suns scored 74 points on the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense in the first half while shooting 76 percent against the NBA’s second-ranked field goal percentage defense.
But while this trio combined for 82 points on 69 percent shooting, this department’s MCGB (Most Coveted Game Ball) goes to a guy who scored only two points and hit only 25 percent from the field.
That would be Grant Hill, who had 10 assists and zero turnovers at one end, and was the key to harassing Tracy McGrady into 11 for 31 shooting at the other. It’s hard to overstate how much he means night in and night out in so many ways to the Suns, who by the way have now won seven straight and moved up to number the three seed in the West – just two games (counting the tiebreaker factor) behind the number one Lakers.
They pretty much blew Houston away in that first half, building a lead that stretched to 23 points at its widest. And even though the Rockets predictably mounted one or two surges in the second half, they never got any closer than eight points.
And mind you, this is a Houston team that recently ran off 22 straight victories, the second longest such streak in NBA history. Well, okay, it’s not exactly the same Houston team. This Houston team has lost three of its last four games, one by 20, one by 21, and one by very deceiving not-nearly-that close 9.
The main reason this score looked so misleadingly semi-respectable is that while the Suns wound up hitting 57 percent of their shots, they also completed only 57 percent of their passes, finishing with 16 turnovers leading to 24 Houston points.
The bottom line: We’re going to have to add another bandwagon to a parade that was a death march just three weeks ago, because the ones we have now are getting dangerously overcrowded.