However, the team
went from allowing 104.0 points per game before Shaq to 110.1 with him. Through
Sunday, Phoenix (43--22) had fallen from first place on the day of the trade to
fifth in the atomic boiler room that is this year's Western Conference. Yes,
the Suns can get back to No. 1 (they were just two games behind the Houston
Rockets), but they could also fall back to ninth (they were four games ahead of
the Denver Nuggets).
organization remains upbeat, largely because the main red flag raised about the
trade—that Shaq would slow down Phoenix's fast break—was never anything but
nonsense. No team runs a five-man break (well, once in a while the Warriors
do), and O'Neal is an excellent defensive rebounder and outlet passer, the two
keys to getting a break started. That's largely why the Suns' transition points
have increased from 17.9 to 18.1 per game since he arrived. (The team's overall
scoring has also gone up slightly, from 109.8 points before Shaq to 111.0
points after.) The devil has been in implementing the details: spacing the
floor, working O'Neal into a pick-and-roll game that once used the spry Marion,
deciding when Shaq is going to take position on the block and close up the
middle, thereby preventing Stoudemire from flying down the lane for a dunk.
As Nash sees it,
he has even more options when O'Neal sets a high pick for him, even though
Shaq's only viable move is to dive to the basket. "When Shaq rolls,
somebody's gotta show on me or I'm going to shoot," explains Nash. "Now
that guy is at a disadvantage to help with Shaq, so who's going to do that?
Amaré's guy probably, so that opens Amaré for the jump shot. If that guy stays
with Amaré, it's going to be really hard for Shaq's guy to help on me, then get
back and get good position on Shaq, because Shaq is going to be eating up all
that space. So I can throw it down to Amaré, and Amaré can throw it into Shaq.
So instead of me just slipping it to Shaq on his way to the basket, he's going
to get a better shot this way."
Actually, it has worked well mostly because of the talent and athleticism of
Stoudemire, who has averaged 28.5 points in the 13 games since O'Neal arrived
(up from 23.2 pre-Shaq). Stoudemire has been getting and hitting his jumper
when his man follows O'Neal on the pick-and-roll, or slashing through the lane
in Shaq's wake—much as a running back follows a blocker—when his man doesn't.
Sometimes Shaq stays in the paint and sometimes he clears out, which hasn't
proved to be too big an adjustment for a man who has lived in the lane.
"What do you
mean, how do I clear out?" Shaq says. "I just do it, that's
One of the
reasons the Suns made the trade was their belief that the extra defensive
attention Shaq gets would open the floor for their sharpshooters. But can
O'Neal still command a double team? So far he hasn't. There was a revelatory
moment in the second half of the Suns' riveting 94--87 home win over the San
Antonio Spurs on March 9. Shaq, single-covered as he was much of the game,
turned and didn't even come close on a short, banked jumper that once was all
but automatic. D'Antoni claims not to be too concerned. "We don't want
teams loading up on him," he says. "We want some of the old Shaq, but
we want to hit him on the move."
unanswered question, of course, is, How well will he be able to move?
ASKED TO pinpoint
the root of his physical woes, Shaq sticks a sharp and very large knuckle into
a reporter's hip.
"It was right
there," he says. "Every day. I couldn't get going. It restricted my
movement. Nobody [in Miami] could figure it out. Drugs, shots, nothing worked.
But here they're fixing it. These guys taught me a new phrase: TFL."
mean?" he's asked.