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Health issues in arrears, Shaq muscling up for Suns

Posted: Friday March 28, 2008 2:22PM; Updated: Monday March 31, 2008 9:42AM
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Man in the middle: Shaq has picked up his play lately with his new team.
Man in the middle: Shaq has picked up his play lately with his new team.
John W. McDonough/SI
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Also in this column:
NBA scouts weigh in on MVP race
Strategy to resuscitate the Knicks

5 Ways Shaq can provide a happy ending

5. By feeling younger. Many believed that O'Neal was washed up this season in Miami, that he had nothing more to give. So how is it that he is suddenly averaging slightly more minutes (29.2) and more rebounds (10.3) and shooting better (61.3 percent) while looking far sprier in 18 games with Phoenix than he did through 33 with the Heat?

All answers, I am told, point to O'Neal's rear end. His derriere wasn't what it used to be.

"His butt muscles, that was the biggest thing,'' Suns athletic trainer Aaron Nelson said. "He knew that. We do manual muscle testing to show if a muscle is weak or strong, and it was pretty much nothing there.''

Shaq's base, Nelson said, affects "everything that he does, from being able to run straight ahead, to go side-to-side, to pivoting, stuff that he does normally. Rebounding and coming down, he's got to be able to stabilize. That muscle is a very important muscle, and if that's weak then you've got a lot of other compensations.''

Shaq credits the Suns' training staff with extending his career. It employs a system called Optimum Performance Training, based on a scientific understanding of how different parts of the body help or hinder each other.

"A lot of these teams have got the old trainers, who I consider 'analog trainers,' and they just go with the stim [electric stimulation] and the sound [ultrasound],'' O'Neal said. "But that don't really work no more. Your body is like a building, and if certain things are off [in the foundation] then the whole thing's going to be off.

"I had pulled a hip muscle, and when you pull one muscle, the other muscles start to overwork. So with me pulling this muscle, all these muscles shut down, and then my ass muscles were starting to work. And that's where all the pain was coming from.''

O'Neal is bitter that the Heat didn't diagnose the relationships between his muscle groups.

"They didn't see that,'' he said. "That's the stuff that you can't see in the MRI. So they would take MRIs and they wouldn't see anything. Because of what was going on, they would make excuses -- 'Oh, he's getting divorced, his career's over, he don't want to play ... he's faking.'

"I had a freaking pain right here,'' O'Neal said, grabbing below his right hip. "I'm sort of old school myself, so I'll suck it up a few days. But then if it all hurts, give me a shot. And then usually when the shot don't work, something else is wrong. But we were taking MRIs and nothing else was wrong. I went to a so-called expert in California and he didn't know what was wrong.''

The Heat said they would not comment on O'Neal's claims here. Earlier this week, Heat president and coach Pat Riley said O'Neal was wrong to complain about the care he received from Miami's medical and athletic training staff.

"It's really a shame that he would insult those people like that because they gave him care. They cared," Riley said. "They didn't kiss his butt. They cared about him. He can do whatever he wants to do to me. That's OK, I don't care. But those men, they tried. ... That upsets me more than anything.''

Nelson did not comment on the care Shaq received in Miami. He simply answered questions about the treatment O'Neal was receiving with the Suns.

"We figured out what muscles were tight, what muscles were weak, and we just corrected those imbalances,'' Harris said. "He had a lot of general tightness everywhere, but mainly the hip and ankle.''

O'Neal showed improvement in the first days of treatment.

"Originally, we were doing a couple of hours a day [of therapy and exercises],'' Harris said. "He even came back from the All-Star break early to get some extra work in before we got into that week of practice, which was the week that he ended up playing [in his Suns debut]. He put a lot of time in early, and now we manage it anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half a day of a combination of the manual therapy and the corrective exercises.''

Nelson said O'Neal weighed 321 pounds at the time of the trade, and he has maintained a healthy range of 324-327. The issue -- ironically for the league's strongest player -- was the strength of small muscle groups that are easy to ignore.

"He had some deficits that are common for a lot of our guys,'' Nelson said. "But for a guy that big and that strong, he definitely had some issues we needed to address.''

The Suns believe that O'Neal can be productive through the final year of his contract in 2009-10.

"I've been here a month, I haven't had to take no drugs, I haven't had to get no shots,'' O'Neal said. "They touch me, they stretch me and I do real simple weights.''

4. By practicing less. The Suns are renowned throughout the league for limiting their time on the practice court. Grant Hill said O'Neal tried to recruit him to the Heat before Hill signed with Phoenix as a free agent last summer.

"I asked him, 'How are the practices? Are the practices long?' " Hill recalled. "He said, 'You know, boy, I can't lie to you.' I said, 'OK, thanks.' ''

One of the difficulties of acquiring O'Neal on Feb. 6 was that coach Mike D'Antoni didn't dare try to work him into the lineup with long practices. O'Neal is 36, Hill is 35 and Steve Nash is 34.

"When you have a veteran team, you don't need to practice so hard,'' Hill said. "We've seen it all, we've done it all. The poor rookies, they probably miss out because they need to practice.''

It's Tuesday in Boston, and the Suns have just finished a short practice after losing in overtime at Detroit the night before.

"In Orlando last year -- and this wasn't a problem, I'm not being critical of Brian Hill [who coached the Magic last season] -- we would have come in and practiced hard today. Even after a tough game last night," Hill said. "When you've got a young team [as the Magic had last season], that's good. But when you're older, it's hard during the grind of the season. Mike has a good read on his guys, and just understanding the big picture, understanding I need you for game time. Like today, he put in a new set and we didn't have to go against competition [in practice]. A lot of stuff we put in for Shaq, we don't even practice it. Our practices have been the games. That's why it took us a little while to figure it out.''

They're still figuring it out, as proved by the losses to Detroit (which didn't have Rip Hamilton) and the Celtics (who outscored Phoenix 60-40 in the second half Wednesday).

"We practiced harder at the start of the season, and we practiced hard -- not long -- in training camp and the preseason,'' Hill said. "Now you throw Shaq in after the All-Star break, you can't have two-hour practices. A lot of this stuff has been on the fly. But we're starting to pick it up.''

3. By playing to both styles. The Suns have another month to prove they can be exceptional whether they go tall with Shaq or small by shifting Amaré Stoudemire to center. After a disturbing 3-6 start with O'Neal, the Suns have gone 7-2 while averaging 113.4 points and holding opponents to 43.7 percent shooting in that time. Stoudemire is averaging 10.7 free-throw attempts since the trade, a 34 percent increase.

"We have a lot of versatility and options now,'' Nash said. "We shouldn't have as many matchup problems, and we should be able to guard the basket and defensive-rebound better than we used to -- and at the same time we should be able to push the ball on the break and get fast-break points.''

The bottom line is that this trade can't be assessed until the playoffs, because the Suns will need the remaining weeks to pull things together, and also because Shaq's half-court influence will be most important in series against the Spurs and Lakers.

2. By relaxing. When the locker-room door opened shortly after the Suns' dreadful 117-97 loss at Boston, Stoudemire and Hill were sitting depressed in the corner with their feet in buckets of ice. O'Neal was on the other side of the room, making jokes with his security coordinator, Jerome Crawford.

"Did you ever see a three-piece suit made out of blue jeans?'' he asked, and it was true: Shaq's designer suit was made of fine denim.

The point is that the Suns don't know how to win a championship because they've never done it.

"They were kind of too serious at times, and I bring in a silly, loose attitude,'' O'Neal said. "When you're not a champion, you always hear of what you have to do, certain things you have to be, but you never really know. My style has always worked for me and I've been there [to the NBA Finals] six times. So I've got to go with my style.''

"It's just about belief,'' Nash said. "If you have someone who's been there before, it adds to your belief. Not that we didn't have belief before, but the more you add to your belief, the stronger you are.

"He's won championships, and we've never won. So we really want to push him to get one more for himself and our first to show us how it's done.''

1. By winning at the end. Don't forget the last time O'Neal won the championship: His Heat went 7-9 over the final month of the 2005-06 regular season amid continuing doubts about their preseason trade for Antoine Walker.

"You never know you won it until you won it,'' Shaq said, referring back to how a last-second three-pointer by Robert Horry helped the Lakers beat Sacramento in the Western Conference finals on their way to the championship in 2001-02. "If you do everything right and plus you get a little bit of luck, then you'll win.''

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