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Shaq, Phoenix looking to find common ground
by Marc Narducci / March 2, 2008

When Shaquille O’Neal was dealt to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 6 from Miami for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, there was plenty of skepticism around the NBA as to whether this was a square peg in a round hole sort of deal.

The Suns have been one of the NBA’s top transition teams, while O’Neal’s game is more suited to a plodding half-court offense.

Couple the fact that he turns 36 on March 6 and had been bothered by a troublesome hip, and it was logical to argue how much Shaq has left in the tank. Or could he fit into the Phoenix offense, or more importantly, could the Suns adjust to his game?

After six games, the results haven’t been encouraging, but it’s way too early to write off either Shaq or the Suns. It’s not too early, however, to have some concerns.

In the half dozen games, O’Neal was averaging un-Shaq-like numbers, 10.3 points, 9.8 rebounds in 28.3 minutes.

More importantly, Phoenix was 2-4 in those games.

At the moment, Phoenix is sensitive about questions regarding O’Neal. After a 119-114 home defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni was naturally defensively.

“This has nothing to do with Shaq,” he said. “This has something to do with urgency and playing with heart and understanding.”

It would be too easy to blame the Suns slide on changing their style for Shaq. The Suns still like to run, but they also are running more half-court sets to accommodate their new center.

One of the problems is that they have rarely been looking for O’Neal when he gets down in the blocks.

He is still able to score with his jump hook, but his game was always predicated on his quickness, especially for somebody 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds.

Against the Sixers, Shaq had just one offensive rebound in nearly 26 minutes and only took five shots (making four).

In his first six games, he has averaged just 7.2 shots per game. Even though his offensive skills aren’t what they once were, that is far too few shots for O’Neal.

Phoenix has to be more patient kicking it into the post. For instance, the Suns do throw it down low and once O’Neal kicks the ball back out, he rarely sees it again. With his frame, O’Neal still has the ability to get good position down low, but it will take more patience by his teammates to continually work it into him.

It’s likely to take nearly the rest of the regular season for the Suns to adapt to Shaq and vice versa.

That doesn’t mean the experiment won’t work.

One thing is for sure, O’Neal looks to be in great physical shape. He is so motivated to succeed in Phoenix that Shaq often returns in the evenings for a second workout.

“He is a great guy who will do anything and has proven that by coming in at nights for extra workouts,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni says that O’Neal isn’t demanding the ball, hasn’t made a mention about getting more touches in the offense. He has tried to blend in, but the Suns also have an obligation to adjust to his game.

“The rest of us have to fit around him a little bit better than we have,” D’Antoni said. “It hasn’t been him, it’s the other guys seem a little lost sometimes.”

For Shaq to be effective he will have to start commanding double teams. That didn’t happen against Philadelphia. His teams were always successful because opponents would double Shaq and he had the ability to find the open man.

He also had the talent to still dominate offensively while being double-teamed. Now there is a question as to whether he can do that.

Of course, the question isn’t in Shaq’s mind.

“This team always had a shot to get next level and hopefully I’m that missing piece,” O’Neal said. “We’re jelling together and I have more than 20 games and I am happy where we are.”

Actually nobody should be happy just yet.

There is the conventional wisdom that Shaq will slow down a transition team, but even with declining skills, he’s still capable of being a more than capable rebounder, something the Suns desperately needed.

O’Neal is also expected to help defensively, to clog the middle, which had been a rite of passage for those driving the lane against the Suns.

There was a school of thought that the Suns weren’t going to win a championship the way they were constructed. There is a lot of merit to that type of thinking.

In that respect, trading for O’Neal was a worthwhile gamble.

However, there will be growing pains that could last at least for the rest of the regular season.

“There is adjustment period,” D’Antoni said. “We haven’t change things up and are still running the same plays, just with a different point of emphasis.”

Shaq’s presence should be felt more in the playoffs than the regular season.

“Once the playoffs start they won’t always let us run and we have to slow it up so once they get a little comfortable with a slow it up game, then we will be dangerous team,” O’Neal said. “Right now is not the time to be a dangerous team. There are a lot of teams peaking now.”

The Suns aren’t one of them at this point. Whether they can peak during the postseason is anybody’s guess at this point.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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