But fortunately, Shaq sits a great bench, and the Suns do a very decent plod, thank you very much.
Amare Stoudemire has averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds in the three games after the Shaquille O’Neal trade. (NBAE Photos)
Since the deal went down the Suns have lost in overtime to a very good team (New Orleans), squeaked past a very young team (Seattle), and sneaked past a very injured team (Washington).
That’s pretty fair country plodding no matter how you figure it, and the further good news is that although he has yet to put on a sneaker, Shaq seems to have already fulfilled a promise he made on Trade Day.
Among the many things he pledged to do for the Suns was make Amare better. And apparently it went from his lips to Amare’s ear, because in the three games since The Big Guarantee made that promise Amare has averaged 30 points and 16.5 rebounds, and run his consecutive successful free throw streak to 30.
Last night he had 31 points and 13 rebounds, giving him his first back to back 30 point, 10 rebound game since April 2005. And his two free throws with 8.8 seconds left gave the Suns just enough leeway to survive DeShawn Stevenson’s three-pointer at the buzzer at :00.1.
Amare got some major help from Raja Bell in the third period when he scored 12 of his 21 points to keep the Suns ahead, and Brian Skinner, who delivered 9 of his 10 points off the bench in the second period to help the Suns take a five-point lead at intermission. And although he took only six shots and scored only 10 points, Steve Nash had 12 assists and hit a crucial trey down the stretch.
“We played okay,” said Coach Mike, “but we just couldn’t hit the big shots we needed to put them away. But give the Wizards credit. They played extremely well, as often happens when a team is missing two of its stars.” (That would be Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, who average a combined 43.5 points and 11.2 rebounds between them).
The Suns weren’t at full strength themselves, what with Leandro Barbosa trying to play through an illness that sent him home early in the fourth period and who suffered through a 2-for-12 night and managed only five points.
So what’s it all mean?
Frankly, not very much. We won’t be able to make any kind of definite analysis, or even have much of a clue vis-à-vis the Suns’ championship chances until Shaq suits up and gets into game shape.
“The way we’re playing right now isn’t really great,” said Coach Mike, “but it doesn’t really matter because we’re going to be a totally different team with Shaq, and hopefully a better one. In the meantime we’ll just try to win as many games as we can.”
In case it has escaped your attention, ever since The Trade it’s been pretty much all about Shaq all of the time. And last night he drew a standing ovation as he made his way toward the bench just before the tip-off. (Okay, so technically I’m not sure it qualifies as a “standing” ovation because the fans were already standing as part of the pre-game ritual. But pending a rule from the Committee on Ovations I’m calling it “standing”).
And I have to say that when the TV cameras zeroed in on him, which was early and often, he looked very imposing indeed.
The bottom line: The victory, coupled with a Dallas loss in New Jersey, gave the Suns a game and a half lead in the Western Conference.