Thursday, February 21, 2008

Suns Upbeat ... But Looking Up At Lakers

PHOENIX -- The one thing we know for certain after Shaquille O'Neal's first game with the Suns is ... the Lakers are looking great.

Shaq and the Suns? To Be Determined. Sure they can get better once they work out the kinks. But it's hard to imagine O'Neal making vastly greater contributions than the 15 points and nine rebounds he put in Wednesday night. The scariest notion is that even though the Suns can get better, so can the Lakers once they get Andrew Bynum back. And the Spurs got a little Shaq insurance themselves by trading for Kurt Thomas earlier in the day.

Then there are the practical matters posed by the Lakers' 130-124 victory: the two teams are tied atop the Pacific Division with 37-17 records, and the Lakers have won the season series, 3-1.

The Suns had an upbeat attitude afterward. O'Neal was more positive than I've ever seen him after a loss. Instead of reverting back to monosyllabic answers he was as glib and colorful as his arrival press conference. He stayed 10 minutes and practically had to be pulled away from the microphone.

"I haven't been this happy in a long time," he said.

He was in such a good mood he even fell on the sword for his new teammates.

"I will take the blame for this loss because I wasn't in tune with the guys," O'Neal said. "But give me four or five days to really get in tune and I'll get it."

Yep, plenty of Suns-shine, coming there way. Zippity doo-dah.

"I think we've got a lot to be encouraged by," Steve Nash said.

"I just think we'll get it all back and work on it piece by piece," said Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni.

But it could be that by the time the Suns get it all figured out it will be too late to win the division and too little to beat the Lakers or the Spurs in the playoffs.

O'Neal was doing his best to fit in with the Suns offense. However, the first time he caught the ball he was on the move, coming across the free-throw line, a place he rarely occupies in the half-court set. He looked out of place. A couple of times he even beat Nash (whom he called "a hip-hop version of Scott Skiles" and the "Canadian Eminem") down the floor on the break, although he didn't get the ball.

Shaq didn't bring the Suns to a standstill; they scored 20 fast break points, two above their average. But he wasn't a great catalyst either. Two of his outlet passes were intercepted.

He and Nash connected on just one alley-oop, despite Nash's talents in that department. And in one case the lack of familiarity had disastrous results when he knocked Raja Bell to the deck and out of the game with an elbow as O'Neal tried to block a Bryant shot.

As they discovered later on, it's not too bad an option to go to O'Neal in the low post and let him do his thing, the way he used to do with what he called his "other team." But the days of counting it as an automatic two points are over. He made only one of his first three shots, coming when he dunked over DJ Mbenga on an inbounds pass.

It could be that O'Neal's greatest contribution is to provide a boost to a teammate, like Kurt Busch drafting behind Ryan Newman to push him to victory in the final lap of the Daytona 500. (Might as well make a NASCAR reference, since twice as many people watched Daytona as the All-Star game.)

Amare Stoudemire moved back to the power forward position and flourished, scoring 37 points to go with 15 rebounds and three blocked shots.

"Playing power forward allows me to roam a little bit more on the wing," Stoudemire said. "As far as crashing the boards offensively, as far as being out there on the perimeter a little more. I think that's what you guys are noticing.

"It always helps when you've got another big guy in there with you, someone they have to pay attention to as far as rebounding goes."

If Shaq can't single-handedly alter the balance of power from conference to conference, as he did when he came West in 1996, he still can make events seem more important by his mere presence.

US Airways Center was packed in anticipation, the fans eager to cheer and snap pictures the moment O'Neal took the court.

A fan sitting behind me turned to his friend and said, "When was the last time you saw this place this full, this early?"

It felt like a continuation of the past two playoffs, which have pitted these teams against each other the first round.

"It was a familiar energy in the building," said Kobe Bryant, sounding like a Jedi knight.

Sixteen photographers and cameramen trained their lenses on Shaq as he stood for the national anthem.

The crowd wanted to salute him for everything they did, giving him standing ovations for his first dunk, an aggressive one-handed rebound as he fended off Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom, and a dive across the baseline after a loose ball, as he bowled over official David Guthrie and a couple photographers in the process.

He's engaged, he's looking to fit in. Best of all for the Suns, he said his hip and knees felt fine. He got stronger as the game went on, getting nine points and three rebounds in the fourth quarter.

"I'm in better shape than I thought I was," O'Neal said.

D'Antoni had said before the game that he planned to limit Shaq to 20 minutes, but O'Neal would up laying almost 29.

The Suns medical staff wanted to keep him out longer, but D'Antoni told them, "You talk to Shaq. He's staring me down."

Too bad for the Suns O'Neal didn't intimidate the Lakers as much. They scored 56 points in the paint, with Pau Gasol going for 29 and Odom scoring 22. The Lakers continued to get production from the bench, which scored 13 points in a noteworthy second quarter. And Bryant was unstoppable, torching Bell and then Grant Hill for 41 points on 16-of-25 shooting. It felt like one of those Jordan vs. Starks games, when Jordan was going to get his points no matter how good the defense.

It sure didn't take the Lakers long to adjust to Pau Gasol. They won his first game in a Laker uniform and are 7-1 with him. They're surging with confidence

"Know you can do it, don't think you can," Bryant told his teammates before the game. "We're a good team. We deserve to come in here and win."

And that's the difference. The Lakers know right now. The Suns think they can, hoping Shaq is The Big Diesel That Could.

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