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For now, Suns are only the Not-So-Big threat in West

November 21, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer

PHOENIX — And now, the Big Division Rival.

Shaquille O'Neal, who's always calling himself the Big Something or Other -- Aristotle, Cactus, Moody (actually, the Lakers' coaching staff gave him that one) -- appeared before the Lakers in yet another incarnation Thursday night.

Unfortunately, if this was a big moment for O'Neal, his new team and the media, the Lakers didn't seem to notice, running over the Suns like any other doormat, leading by as many as 18 points, and coasting to a 105-92 victory.

To date, the Lakers haven't happened upon a rival in the division, or the conference, having gone 8-0 against West teams with wins here, at Dallas and at New Orleans.

O'Neal began the night by hugging his old coach, Phil Jackson, assuring him he would never say the things he was supposed to have said.

Shaq then went out and scored 15 points with nine rebounds, which would have been more impressive if it fit with anything else the Suns were doing.

With the ball going into O'Neal, who got twice as many touches as Amare Stoudemire in the first half, Stoudemire wound up scoring 21 points, missing 12 of his 21 shots.

Meanwhile, Steve Nash, the two-time MVP, went scoreless in the first half and wound up with eight.

Stoudemire, asked afterward if the Suns know what they're doing, answered, "Sometimes.

"We just go to figure it out. It's definitely a different offense with a different feel out there. . . .

"Any time you're hit with something new, it's going to take time to get used to it. We played so well with our fast break with Coach [Mike] D'Antoni. With [Coach] Terry Porter, it's a little different here so we've just got to adjust and find a balance between fast break and half court."

Good luck.

Aside from his new uniform, this has been a season like any other for O'Neal, starting when he told an Orlando, Fla., television reporter, "My basketball career will be over in 735 days."

That would have covered the two seasons left on his contract, taking him through age 38.

Then, of course, Shaq said he hadn't decided any such thing.

Then, there was his announcement that he and Grant Hill, both Orlando residents, want to buy the Magic, followed by an announcement by the Magic that it wasn't for sale.

Then, of course, there was O'Neal's conspiracy theory, suggesting his feud with Kobe Bryant had been condoned or masterminded by Jackson . . . after which Shaq said he hadn't said it.

The Sacramento Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper, to whom O'Neal said it, says he has it on tape.

Shaq also said it this summer to another reporter from ESPN.

Jackson never took offense but with ESPN anchors suggesting O'Neal's remarks could taint his legacy, you could see why Shaq was eager to retract it.

In any case, a playoff atmosphere prevailed, or at least until the tipoff.

"This is a good early test for us," Porter said before the game. "The Lakers are the defending Western conference champs and they're playing, if not the best basketball then among the best teams right now . . . It's going to be important to see how we respond and what adjustments we have to make. But it's exciting.

"I'm very excited to play this game and see how our guys will respond in this type of situation."

Actually, the Suns have already made too many adjustments.

If they slowed down after O'Neal's arrival last season, they have slowed further with Porter succeeding D'Antoni.

With the ball going into O'Neal, and the Lakers holding a team meeting with Shaq in the middle, the pace was torpid, as it has become recently.

The Suns have now been held under 100 points in four of the last five games.

Nevertheless, the Suns now know what adjustments will be required. They'll have to get younger, or faster, or better at something.

And before the next game against the Lakers, their new center needs to become The Big No Comment.


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