As the saying goes, "Don't hate the player, hate the game." Well, considering the current tongue-lashing dished out by Shaquille O'Neal at Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, the hate is all-encompassing for the Suns' big man.
The triggering episode occurred Tuesday night in Orlando during Phoenix's 111-99 loss. During the game, Magic center Dwight Howard elbowed Shaq in the chest. The Suns center flopped worse than his 1998 album Respect. Van Gundy, who coached O'Neal for a second during the Miami Heat's 2005-06 championship campaign, had this to say:
"I was shocked, seriously shocked, and very disappointed because he [Shaq] knows what it's like. Let's stand up and play like men, and I think our guy did that tonight."
Shaq, who has never seen eye-to-eye with Van Gundy, blasted him with a verbal face-palm Wednesday.
"I heard his comment. Flopping to me is doing it more than one time, and I realized when I tried to take the charge, as I went down, I realized that that play reminded me of his whole coaching career," said O'Neal. "And one thing I really despise is a front-runner, so I know for a fact that he's a master of panic, and when it gets time for his team to go in the postseason and do certain things, he will let them down because of his panic. I've been there before, I've played for him."
Eternal advantage: Shaq.
Hopefully all of this anger will spark the Suns, who are currently 0-2 on their four-game road trip. Best they can go is 2-2, and they desperately need the split because the Mavs and Cavs will be at the Purple Palace next week.
First up tonight are the Houston Rockets, losers of a toughie to the blazing Utah Jazz on Wednesday. The Rockets are only two games behind Southwest Division leaders San Antonio, so Yao Ming, Shane Battier, and Ron Artest will be hungry for a victory. Speaking of blazing, Artest is doing exactly that in his previous five games, averaging 22.2 points, nearly 6 boards, and 3.4 assists as he continues to shoulder more of the load because of Tracy McGrady's season-ending knee injury.
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Then, on Sunday, the masters of hate-inducing feelings, the Spurs, host the Suns in a nationally televised game. Like the Rockets matchup, playoff positioning is at stake. This will be the fourth and final time the two teams will hook up in the regular season (the Spurs lead the series, 2-1). Last time the Suns and Spurs did battle, San Antonio dropped 114 points in its 10-point victory at US Airways that included a cool 30 by Manu Ginobili.
If Phoenix is looking for another reason to hate, they can recall Gregg Popovich's post-game comments following that January 29 matchup. "We're scoring way too many points," the Spurs head coach said. "We shouldn't be having this much fun."
A pretty lame thing to say, but the Suns can't get all butt hurt. Their Swiss cheese D did just give up 135 points on Wednesday night to the Heat, a team who only averages 97.5 per game. Instead, they need to get mad and stay amped up to get through this brutal stretch of elite competition that may very well make or break the season.
The Houston game tips at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Local TV: My45) while the San Antonio battle commences at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (National TV: ABC). Both games can be heard locally on KTAR-620 AM.