The acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal was supposed to give the Phoenix Suns an inside defensive presence they feel they've been missing during their recent postseason runs.

The Suns have felt the presence of the engaging O'Neal, but they're still looking for some defense.

Phoenix will try to avoid losing for the fourth time in five games on Tuesday when it visits the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Suns (39-20) were in first place in the Pacific Division when they acquired O'Neal from Miami on Feb. 6, but they've since been overtaken by the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won 11 of 12 and own a 2 1/2-game lead on Phoenix.

The Suns weren't a strong defensive team before the trade, giving up 104.0 points per game, but they've allowed 112.5 in going 2-4 with O'Neal in the lineup.

They've yielded 117.0 points in their last four contests, and gave up 36 in the fourth quarter on Saturday en route to a 119-114 home loss to Philadelphia.

"I think it's probably an understatement if I say we are struggling," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think it just comes down to playing hard. Playing with emotion. And we have not done it."

O'Neal is averaging 10.3 points with his new team - 15.2 below his career average.

"This has nothing to do with Shaq," D'Antoni said. "This has something to do with urgency and playing with heart."

Steve Nash has seen his scoring increase and his assists decrease slightly since Shawn Marion was dealt to the Heat along with Marcus Banks for O'Neal. Nash averaged 17.4 points and 11.7 assists before O'Neal entered the lineup. With him, Nash is averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 assists.

That may not seem like much of a difference, but when Nash scores more, the Suns tend to lose more. He is averaging 20.0 points in losses this season as opposed to 16.3 in victories.

The Suns are 13-1 when Nash scores 10 or fewer points.

Amare Stoudemire has enjoyed the addition of O'Neal. With another big body drawing attention inside, Stoudemire has averaged 29.8 points in his last six games.

The Blazers (31-29), meanwhile, fell six games behind Golden State for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference Sunday night, losing 110-104 in Oakland.

"We needed this game because they're the eighth seed, and if that's what we're shooting for, we've got to do a better job of coming out to win this game," said guard Brandon Roy, who had 26 points. "For us, every game is a playoff game because we're so far behind."

Roy is averaging 19.4 points in his second season in the league, and his strong all-around play earned him a spot on the All-Star team. But the Blazers have had trouble finding consistent scoring outside of Roy - their 95.4 points per game are 13th in the West.

They have gotten a big boost all season from reserve Travis Outlaw. He's the fourth-leading scorer in the league off the bench, averaging 13.7 points, and in his last six games as a substitute he's averaging 21.2 points in 29.1 minutes.

This is the first of three meetings between these teams this season. Phoenix has won 10 of the last 11 in the series.


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