While few have questioned their offense in recent seasons, the Phoenix Suns have long been labeled a soft defensive team. With the help of newly acquired center Shaquille O'Neal, that could be about to change.
The Suns will look to make it back-to-back wins against the top two teams in the NBA on Sunday when they host the Detroit Pistons, who are coming off their best offensive effort in nearly eight years.
But the league-best Boston Celtics, coming off their two highest-scoring games in 2007-08, were held to their lowest point total of the season in an 85-77 loss to Phoenix (38-17) on Friday.
The Celtics had scored 243 points in their previous two games, but they shot just 38.5 percent and had only 30 points at halftime against the Suns, who are allowing 104.0 points per game to rank 26th in the NBA. Phoenix won despite committing 24 turnovers and shooting 42.5 percent.
"When things aren't going well and you're not shooting the ball well and turning the ball over - to win with our defense, which I thought we did tonight, it's tremendous," Suns forward Grant Hill said. "... We kind of played like an East Coast team."
The Suns had allowed 130 points in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in their first game with O'Neal, but the 35-year-old center said he felt more comfortable Friday. He helped Phoenix outrebound Boston 50-32, as he matched a season high with 14 rebounds in just over 26 minutes. The Suns also had a 46-33 rebounding edge versus the Lakers.
"He gives us a big presence," said Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, who had 18 points Friday. "We're not the short, skinny guys anymore. It's nice to be on that end of the battle sometimes."
Hill added 14 points and 13 boards, following a 17-point, 10-rebound performance against the Lakers. The last time the Pistons' No. 3 overall draft pick in 1994 had back-to-back double-doubles was Dec. 2-4, 2002.
O'Neal had only four points Friday after scoring 15 in his Suns debut, but Amare Stoudemire totaled 65 points in those two games and that led O'Neal to call him "the best big man in the game right now - period."
While enabling Stoudemire to play more of his natural position at power forward, O'Neal has acknowledged he's ready and willing to take a more limited role offensively next to Stoudemire, who is averaging 30.7 points in his last six games.
"(The acquisition of O'Neal has) helped me a lot," Stoudemire said. "It's just allowed me to play basketball. I don't have to battle so much with the big guys and get in foul trouble, things like that. Tonight was a great step for us."
While Phoenix ended play Friday with the second-best record in the Western Conference, Detroit (40-15) is two games back of Boston for the league's top record.
The Pistons avoided a third consecutive loss on Friday, scoring 100 points by the end of the third quarter in a 127-100 home win over Milwaukee.
Detroit, which shot 51.7 percent against the Bucks as six players scored in double figures, hadn't scored that many points in regulation since a 130-116 win over Denver on March 8, 2000.
"It's good to get back on track, especially with the West Coast trip starting," said Pistons coach Flip Saunders, whose team is allowing a league-low 90.3 points per game. "It's going to be a tough game against Phoenix, so we needed to be ready to play."
The Pistons are beginning a four-game road trip versus Western Conference teams, against whom they are 5-5 on the road this season.
Against the Bucks, Chauncey Billups' 21 points and 12 assists led Detroit, which avenged a 103-98 loss at Milwaukee in its previous game. The Pistons are 8-1 when Billups has 10 or more assists.
The Pistons and the Suns haven't met this season, but Detroit has won three of four the last four meetings, including two straight in Phoenix.
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