Sunday, November 23, 2008


Phoenix center Shaquille O'neal doesn't seem quite ready to pass on the big man torch. In his first matchup with Blazers rookie sensation Greg Oden, Shaq showed why he was the best center of his time - posting 19 points on 8 for 12 shooting, 17 boards and 2 blocks. Oden, meanwhile, finished with just 5 points and 5 fouls. Guess he was the Big School Bus tonight, the way he took the young one to school.

Many have started to brand the Marion-for-Shaq trade, and the subsequent let-go of coach Mike D'Antoni as failed moves for the Suns, especially after the team burned out of the first round of the playoffs last year. Some have started to count the team out as contenders - with Shaq, two-time MVP Steve Nash and on-borrowed-time forward Grant Hill all aging another year. Phoenix, though, is currently 9-5, good enough for a three-way tie for second in the West (behind just the powerhouse Lakers). More than that, it's starting to look as though their new commitment to defense might be key in making a deeper run into the playoffs - just as Suns GM Steve Kerr predicted when he agreed to end the Fun and Gun era in Phoenix.

What's behind the newfound relevance? Part of it is Shaq. In the new offense installed by coach Terry Porter, he's finding more and more touches. And he's responded. After averaging 12.9 points for the Suns last season, he's upped his scoring to 15.4, with a team-high 8.6 boards and 1.2 blocks. He's had some pretty dominant games this season - dropping 29 and 11 on Milwaukee last November 8, and a 29-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist effort in a close win against Sacramento six days later.

Nash isn't having a particularly great year numbers-wise - but I think that speaks more of the offensive philosophy than his losing a step. They've been making the most of Shaq's talents, unlike last year where the offense was leaving him behind. I think there's a better balance this year, and I'm sure Nash wouldn't mind if it can get them back into contention. The addition of Matt Barnes gives their lineup a little more depth now, something the Suns sorely lacked last season. It might be too early to tell, but I think the Suns are for real this year. I'm not saying they're going to beat the Lakers, or that they're even making it to the second round.

I'm just saying - don't count them out yet. Not if Shaq can keep turning back the clock.

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