Shaquille O'Neal gave the Phoenix Suns a boost offensively in his debut, but they couldn't stop anyone on the defensive end. All of a sudden, the Boston Celtics can't, either.
The league-best Celtics try to avoid losing a third straight game for the first time this season on Friday when their Western Conference road swing continues in Phoenix, which seeks its first win with its future Hall of Fame center in uniform.
The Suns (37-17) are tied with Golden State for the league lead with 110.1 points per game, but their run-and-gun style also makes them one of the league's most vulnerable teams defensively, and they allow 104.5 per contest.
Many thought their trade for O'Neal would slow Phoenix's frenetic pace, but that certainly wasn't the case in his initial appearance on the court. The Suns made 51.6 percent of their shots, but allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to shoot 56.5 percent and lost 130-124, the most points they have allowed in regulation this season.
Still, coach Mike D'Antoni was encouraged by the debut of O'Neal, who hadn't played since Jan. 21 due to a hip injury.
"He did seem to get stronger as the game went on, which is incredible," D'Antoni said of O'Neal, who had 15 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes. "I did really think he'd run out of steam sometime in the second half, and he really didn't. Him not being used to anything that we do - 124 points - I didn't think we could put that many up, just starting out."
The Celtics (41-11) aren't used to playing at such a fast pace. They average 100.5 points, third-most in the Eastern Conference, and went into the All-Star break allowing a league-low 89.4 per game.
That number has risen to 90.7 after their latest losses. Boston has turned in its two worst defensive performances of the season in the first two contests on its five-game road trip, losing 124-118 at Denver on Tuesday before falling 119-117 at Golden State a night later on Baron Davis' buzzer-beater.
"You've just got to learn from it and understand what we're doing wrong and clean it up," said Paul Pierce, who is averaging 26.8 points in his past five games.
What the Celtics have been doing quite well lately is scoring. They've averaged 107.3 points in their past 10 games even though they've played eight of those without Kevin Garnett, who was out with a strained abdominal muscle.
Garnett struggled in his first game back, scoring only four points in 20 minutes against the Nuggets, but had 17 to go along with 15 rebounds in 30 minutes on Wednesday.
"The more I play, the better," Garnett said. "I'm sure (coach) Doc (Rivers) is being a little cautious. I think the better I get into a flow, the more my minutes go up."
Garnett's two highest-scoring games in the NBA have come against Phoenix, both with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had 47 points against the Suns on Jan. 4, 2005, and scored 44 on Jan. 29, 2007.
Scoring against Phoenix may not be difficult, but stopping Amare Stoudemire is another story. The 25-year-old All-Star, who had been masquerading as a center for the Suns, will get to play his natural position of power forward more with O'Neal in tow.
"I think playing power forward allows me to roam a little more on the wing as far as crashing the boards offensively and as far as being out there on the perimeter a little more," Stoudemire said.
He has been outstanding lately regardless of where he's been playing. Stoudemire is averaging 29.4 points and 12.1 rebounds in his past seven games.
With O'Neal and Stoudemire down low, Steve Nash should be able to pad his league lead in assists (11.7 per game). He's been scoring more recently, though, averaging 23.3 points in his last three games.
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