Suns News

Shaq Gets Last Laugh on Spurs’ Joke of Early Foul

O'Neal was able to thwart Pop's tactics by shooting 5-of-8 from the charity stripe.
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Jerry Brown
East Valley Tribune
Oct. 28, 2008

SAN ANTONIO - With Shaquille O’Neal’s “coward” comment still ringing in the ears of Spurs fans before Wednesday’s game, a reporter asked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich if he would consider a mock “Hack-a-Shaq” on the first possession of the game to jokingly prove that he wasn’t backing down from his strategy in last year’s playoffs.

Popovich stopped. He ran his fingers through his new white beard. And then he started to grin.

“You know, that’s not a bad idea now that I think about it. It’s a better suggestion than any of our (assistant) coaches have had all summer,” Popovich said. “I could get a couple of guys in front of me and act like they were holding me back … a typical NBA fight.”

Funny guy. He was just kidding, of course. Right?

Sure enough, the Suns won the tip and ex-Sun Michael Finley wrapped his arms around O’Neal to stop play five seconds into the game — a nonshooting foul. O’Neal quickly looked over at Popovich, who gave him two thumbs-up and the two shared a laugh.

“Classic Pop. I loved it,” Steve Nash said. “It would have been a fine if he didn’t do it.”

But after Matt Bonner picked up his third foul with 2:39 left in the first half and the Spurs down to only three big men due to injury, Popovich brought the hack back in earnest. Four away-from-the-ball fouls put O’Neal at the line four times, but he was able to hit five of eight free throws to help the Suns to a 49-46 lead at the half.

“I was ready and prepared. I have to just go up and hit them,” O’Neal said. “(The Spurs) are probably going to make sure I hit them every game. From high school on, I’ve shot 50 percent — make one, miss one. I just have to try to make them both or not miss both.”

But after most of the media had left his locker, O’Neal said he was knew what he was doing when he called San Antonio’s tactics cowardly and was just doing his part to stoke the fires for the season opener.

“When I say and do things it’s all about marketing,” he said. “Everyone will miss my 'quotatiousness’ when I’m gone. It gets the media guys involved, it gets the fans involved. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Pop, he’s been taking care of me since I was 18 and I was a nobody living in San Antonio. It’s all in fun.

“You guys have been talking about it all week, a couple of fans (here) tried to fight me. It all works.”

A TOUGH START

Suns general manager Steve Kerr wasn’t surprised to see San Antonio as his team’s first destination out of the box when the schedule came out this summer. The league office wants attractive and, in some cases, combative matchups to, um, spur early interest.

But flying home to face New Orleans tonight — the dark-horse pick of many to reach the NBA Finals this year? “That one got my attention right away,” Kerr said.

Last year, the Suns won in Seattle on opening night and then flew home to a 119-98 ambush at the hands of the Lakers the next night. The Hornets won’t be as rested — they played in Golden State on Wednesday and also had a two-hour flight in front of them — but the Suns figure to struggle in back-to-backs with three of their top six players on limited minutes.

“There’s no question we’re not a finished product and going to get better down the road,” Kerr said. “So if we were to start out slowly, I wouldn’t be panicked. It’s such a long season. But if we stumble early, we’ll be more exposed because of the changes and people will be writing our obituary.

“As long as we focus on the process of getting better, we’ll be fine.”

HEART TROUBLE

The Spurs were fresh out of Argentines on Wednesday. Starters Manu Ginobili is out indefinitely following ankle surgery and forward Fabricio Oberto will miss at least the first two games after undergoing treatment for an irregular heartbeat — the second time he’s had such trouble in the last 18 months.

NASH ON POINT

True to his word to play defense “straight-up” in most cases, coach Terry Porter put Steve Nash on Tony Parker — a matchup that has historically been a poor one for Phoenix.

In recent matchups Nash has guarded Spurs small forward Bruce Bowen, a limited offensive threat, and Bowen has guarded Nash.

“It’s fine with me,” Nash said before the game. “It might be something we’ll do full time, it might be something we switch up on, we’ll see.”

Parker scored 32 points, and had two of his best scoring runs in the first and third quarters at the expense of rookie Goran Dragic.

COPYRIGHT 2008, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.