It was billed as a battle of Supermen -- old-school man of steel Shaquille O'Neal versus youngblood Dwight Howard -- but the key players in last night's Suns/Magic game in Orlando turned out to be a bunch of zebra-shirted mental midgets who whistled way too much while they worked.
While we hate to be one of those homers who rags on the refs when our team loses, are you freakin' kidding? Sure, everybody knows about the NBA's unwritten foul rule that rewards home teams just for being at home, but here are the final free-throw numbers from the 111-99 Magic win: 38 attempts for Orlando, 17 for Phoenix. The Magic went to the line twice as often. Against a team with Hack-a-Shaq at center.
Oh, yeah. The Suns contributed to their own demise, as well.
Three missed layups, 50 missed field-goal attempts, 16 missed three-point flings, and about a million tiny misfires doomed Phoenix to defeat against a team they'd whipped in 17 of their previous 22 meetings. A team they'd edged earlier for one of this season's truly quality wins. A team they'd swept the previous two seasons. A team they'd held their own with on the road through three and a half quarters, and were actually leading, 91-88, until Magic forward Rashard Lewis and company ripped off a 23-8 run to ice the game.
The impressive Lewis wound up with 29 points and 12 boards, both game highs. Lewis' partner on the wing, Hedo Turkoglu, tossed in 22.
Jason Richardson led all Suns scorers with 27, and all Suns in bonehead plays. The dude has talent to burn, but his game can swing wildly from masterful to raggedy-ass in split seconds. It's an odd thing for a veteran playmaker, and something that may well haunt the Suns come playoff time, if it doesn't haunt 'em right out of the playoffs to begin with.
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Steve Nash, back for the first time since he rolled his ankle against the Charlotte Bobcats on February 24, contributed 20 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. Unfortunately, 15 of his 20 came in the first half, and Nash shot mostly blanks like the rest of his teammates down the stretch.
Most disappointing were Grant Hill, with six points, and Matt Barnes, hero of last Sunday's win against the Lakers, who could muster only five in 19 minutes after his 26-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist outburst against L.A.
As for the titanic throwdown between Shaq and Dwight, alas, it was pretty much a draw, with O'Neal putting up 19 points and 11 rebounds to Howard's 21 points and eight boards.