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Good News, Bad News
JACK McCALLUM
March 24, 2008
By embracing a supporting role and livening up the locker room, Shaquille O'Neal has fit right in with the Suns. But so far they don't seem to be a more formidable title contender
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March 24, 2008

Good News, Bad News

By embracing a supporting role and livening up the locker room, Shaquille O'Neal has fit right in with the Suns. But so far they don't seem to be a more formidable title contender

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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).

Yet the 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."

Got that? 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 all."

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."

The still 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."

"What's that mean?" he's asked.

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