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SERIES REPORT

View From The Other Side

What papers in the Phoenix area are saying about the series

May 14, 2000|PEDRO GOMEZ | ARIZONA REPUBLIC

If only Phil Jackson had remained in retirement. His return to the NBA sidelines has transformed Shaquille O'Neal into a real force, one capable of leading the Lakers to the NBA title.

"That's basically the same team from last year," said fatigued Sun center Luc Longley, who dragged himself up and down the court banging bodies with O'Neal on Friday night. "Shaq's a different player this year. I think you have to attribute that to Phil."

O'Neal is the difference between the Suns and the Lakers, who are a victory from dispatching Phoenix for the rest of the summer. O'Neal's newfound focus made him the bane of every team throughout the season.

The Suns' desperate measures to stop O'Neal have resulted in little difference. Even with Longley playing his finest game of the series, O'Neal finished with 37 points and 17 rebounds.

For the series, he is averaging 37.3 points and 17 rebounds a game.

"He's a monster," Sun President Bryan Colangelo said. "They had the dominating record [67-15] in the league, and that was greatly due to Shaquille O'Neal being the most valuable player."

Jackson's influence played a significant role in O'Neal refocusing toward basketball. For the time being, he has let go of the idea of being a movie star and put his energy toward his true calling.

He came to camp in the best shape of his life, having built muscle and lost the little fat he had on his massive body.

"I'm sure there were a few yoga sessions and Zen philosophy meetings also," Colangelo said of Jackson's influence over O'Neal. "Whatever the reason, [O'Neal] has made more of an impact this year than ever before."

The Suns have been living in the Lakers' shadow for more than three decades. Since their inception in 1968, Phoenix has watched Los Angeles go from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and now to O'Neal at the center position.

All the while, the Suns have had the likes of Neal Walk, Rick Robey and Longley to battle back in the middle. It really hasn't been a fair fight. The difference has led to six NBA titles for the Lakers while the Suns are seeking their first.

A seven-game series always exposes a team's warts, and the Suns have a big one on prominent display.

"There's no doubt he's been the difference," Penny Hardaway said. "He's so big and strong and athletic. Guarding him takes all the energy out of you. I think he knows if he doesn't win it all this year, with that team, then it's probably not going to happen."

With O'Neal having his way against whomever the Suns throw his way, this series should be over by Sunday night. That is, if O'Neal has learned about going for the kill under Jackson, whose Chicago teams traditionally finished opponents when they smelled blood.

Asked how the Suns could compete against O'Neal and the Lakers, Colangelo said: "Hope for realignment."

Until the Suns land a quality center, one capable of coming close to matching talents with O'Neal, they are doomed to remain the Lakers' lap dogs.

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