All is Right in Suns’ World for Moment

by Jeramie McPeek
VP, Digital
By Scott Bordow
East Valley Tribune
March 10, 2008

You know what the Suns did for their fans Sunday? Gave them short-term memory loss. That disheartening loss to Utah in which the Jazz shot 75 percent from the field in the fourth quarter? Forgotten. The 126 points allowed to Denver? Deleted. The headscratching effort against Philadelphia, the clunker against Detroit, the maddening inconsistency?

Buried in a 94-87 victory over the San Antonio Spurs that maybe, just maybe, was a hint of things to come.

The Suns have said all along that Shaquille O’Neal’s true value would come in the postseason, when the games slow down and become more physical.

Well, the Suns and Spurs engaged in a playoff-type game Sunday — Steve Nash had the requisite bleeder — and what do you know?

There was O’Neal with 14 points and a game-high 16 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. There was O’Neal, helping to limit Tim Duncan to 6-of-19 shooting. And there was O’Neal, diving into the third row of the stands after a missed shot, energizing both the crowd and his teammates.

Not to mention scaring the bejeebers out the guy who saw a 325-pound missile barreling at him.

“He looked like vintage Shaq,” Grant Hill said. “He smells the playoffs. He smells the potential of this team.”

Given the stench the Suns have been emitting the last couple of weeks, it would be wise not to get too carried away. Beating the Spurs doesn’t turn them into title contenders, just as losing to the Nuggets didn’t mean they’ll miss the playoffs.

We still don’t know if Phoenix has discovered itself, or if it simply was motivated to beat the Spurs. As Nash said, “one win isn’t going to say we’re a finished product.”

But there were encouraging signs.

Thanks to O’Neal, the Suns outrebounded the Spurs, 52-44. That’s only the third time in the past nine games Phoenix has won the battle of the boards against San Antonio.

Phoenix also had 38 points in the paint to San Antonio’s 24. That, too, is a reflection of O’Neal’s presence, both offensively and in his ability to guard the basket.

For once, Tony Parker didn’t get the red carpet treatment in the lane.

“It’s a big body to bother us every time we penetrate,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said.

Duncan noted that the Suns aren’t as fast or explosive as they used to be. But you got the sense he meant it as a compliment and not a criticism.

“I think they are better defensively,” he said.

That would come as news to anyone who has seen the Suns stink it up on defense since O’Neal’s arrival. And to be honest, Phoenix still has major issues on that end of the floor.

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San Antonio exposed the Suns’ inability to cover the pick-and-roll, particularly in the third quarter when Parker and Kurt Thomas used the two-man game to score a combined 12 points. That will continue to be an issue going forward given O’Neal’s lack of mobility and Amaré Stoudemire’s unwillingness to play as good of a game defensively as he talks.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Spurs — and how ironic is this? — are now a more suitable matchup for the Suns because they don’t make O’Neal run and Parker doesn’t dominate Nash as much as Golden State’s Baron Davis, New Orleans’ Chris Paul or Utah’s Deron Williams.

“It’s a step forward,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It was a big game just because of the standings and everything, but we do know we still need some work and we know it’s not going to be easy.”

More than anything, the win was a psychological boost for the Suns — and a chance to breathe for D’Antoni, who has been criticized more in the past three weeks than he has in the past three years.

To lose to San Antonio after coughing up a lead against Utah would have further punctured the team’s belief system and brought fans one step closer to the ledge.

“Sometimes when you’re struggling, you forget how to win,” Hill said. “We had been struggling with that for the last few weeks. But at the same time, when you get a good win against a good opponent, it can change the momentum.”

The Suns play their next three games at home, against Memphis, Golden State and Sacramento. Win all three, and then we’ll say they’re on the right track.

But in winning a bareknuckle brawl Sunday, Phoenix showed us something.

It may still have some fight left come the playoffs.

COPYRIGHT 2008, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.