What a weekend for Planet Orange, and its largest inhabitant!
We're beginning to think of the Phoenix Suns as a planet again, after back-to-back victories against the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Lakers at US Airways Center Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
Shaquille O'Neal's certainly big enough to be Jupiter, and his performances over the weekend were cosmic. On Friday night, he had his best game as a Sun with 45 points and 11 rebounds against Chris Bosh, Shawn Marion, and the Toronto Raptors. He followed that up Sunday afternoon with 33 points and 7 rebounds against old teammate and former enemy Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Shaq played like he was 26 instead of 36 in the absence of fellow old-timer Steve Nash, who's been out for three games with a rolled ankle.
Nash said during a game break Sunday that he thinks he'll play in Tuesday night's game against the Magic in Orlando -- which will be the first of a killer four-game road trip during which the Suns also play Miami, Houston, and nemesis San Antonio, before returning home to face Dallas and Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland.
The only one of these teams with a worse record than the 34-25 Suns are the 31-27 Heat.
At the end of this stretch, we'll be able to assess what Alvin Gentry's back-to-the-future Suns are made of, whether they're likely to make it into the Western Conference playoffs this year. Even after their great weekend, they remain out of the picture in ninth place (behind Utah and Dallas).
What the Suns were made of in their 133-113 blowout Friday night was pure might in the middle in the form of 7-1, 340-pound O'Neal. Shaq was simply too much for Toronto center Andrea Bargnani and power forward Bosh. Bargnani's a 7-footer, but Shaq outweighs him by 100 pounds, and pushed him around all night. O'Neal flicked away the reedy Bosh like a toothpick as he worked in the paint.
Marion, traded by Ponenix to the Heat in the Shaq deal last year, was moved to Toronto just after the All-Star break. At 6-7, the ex-Sun was the leading scorer and rebounder for the Raptors, with 27 points and 11 boards.
Though he fouled out near the end of the game Sunday, Shaq was also too much for the Lakers' skinny 7-footer, Pao Gasol. Filling in at center for injured starter Andrew Bynum, Gasol scored 30 points, but O'Neal overpowered him under the goal -- dunking, laying the ball in the basket, and executing amazing hook shots in the Suns' 118-111 victory.
This contest was a far cry from the 26-point drubbing the Lakers gave the Suns in L.A. on Thursday. It was the Suns most lopsided loss of the year.
Our favorite Shaq moment in the Lakers game Sunday was when O'Neal missed two free throws late in the game, grabbed his own rebound, and two-stepped in for a rim-rattling dunk.
Kobe Bryant almost pulled the game out for the league-leading, 48-12 Lakers. He erased a 10-point halftime lead for the Suns with 17 points in the third quarter. He wound up with 49.
It's strange to say that Grant Hill and Matt Barnes played good defense on Bryant, but the best player in the game's capable of scoring more than 49 (he torched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points in January, 2006, the second-most in a single game in history to Wilt Chamberlain's 100, and he's had 60 points or more in five games -- including 61 against Mike D'Antoni's New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in February).
Speaking of Barnes, his performance against the Lakers was his best since coming to the Purple and Orange from Golden State at the beginning of the season. He had 26 points (5 of 7 three-pointers), 10 rebounds, and 7 assists -- several of them spectacular -- to go along with his solid D.
The difference in the game may have been ball movement and assists. Even with Nash out, the Suns had 24 assists to the Lakers' 19. Leandro Barbosa also had 7 and O'Neal 3.
Interviewed after the game, Shaq was asked why the Suns kept letting the Lakers hang around, after leading by as much as 15. "We've got to take care of the ball," O'Neal said. "We've [given] away 16 or 18 games because of stupid mistakes this year."
Indeed, during fired head coach Terry Porter's era, the Suns were turnover crazy. In the Lakers game, Phoenix had 15. Including one near the end of the game because, Nash-less, they were hassled in the back court on an in-bounds play and lost the ball, giving L.A. an easy score.
At that point, we were wondering if the Lakers would somehow, miraculously, psyche the Suns into losing in the last seconds. But Phoenix had a gut check, and it didn't happen.
Of note: the Lakers also had 15 turnovers, largely because of steals and heads-up play by Barnes and Barbosa, who combined for five take-aways.
Barbosa was again great in the open court, winding up with 22 points. Unusually, he didn't hit a three, making most of his buckets on fast breaks and slashing moves to the basket. Hill scored 17.
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And a shout-out to Louis Amundson. Much of what he does doesn't show up on the stat sheet (he had 5 points and 3 rebounds in 24 minutes), but his hustle plays on defense kept the Suns in the game at key moments.
Outlasting L.A. proved that the Suns can beat a great team, even with Amar'e Stoudemire out for probably the rest of the season and Steve Nash sitting on the bench in a suit and tie. This should give Phoenix emotional fuel during the upcoming stretch against some of the league's other great teams.
They have enough talent to go deep in the playoffs, but can they come together as a unit before it's too late? As for deep, Gentry's been playing 9 and 10 players a game since since he took over after Porter's firing, which should pay off once Nash returns. With the improved play of Goran Dragic, the Suns may finally be able to give Nash the rest he needs to lead the team into the post-season.
This weekend renewed our hope.