|S. O'NEAL Back to the block|
Shaquille O'Neal's memory is excellent.
This is bad news for the doubters and haters who declared the decision of the Phoenix Suns to send Shawn Marion packing and replace him with the 36-year-old Diesel a colossal blunder.
Shaq, who will face the Celtics tonight at the Garden, can tick off the litany of reasons why the pundits declared he was certain to fail: too old, too stubborn, too injury-prone, too immobile, too big, too egotistical.
The early returns were not good. His indoctrination into the Suns' free-flowing, fast-break style was underwhelming. The team struggled to score, Shaq looked uncomfortable in his role, and Phoenix simply could not stop anyone.
The coach, Mike D'Antoni, preached patience, but no one was listening. D'Antoni was drowned out by the thrashing general manager Steve Kerr and Shaq were enduring for messing up one of the elite teams in the West.
"We knew it would take time," D'Antoni explained, "because we had to change the way we played. When we added Tim Thomas [in 2006], we didn't miss a beat. When the Lakers added Pau Gasol, they didn't, either. But when you take a big piece out and put a completely different big piece in, you are going to have a few frustrations.
"We were actually playing well, but we were losing, and we really weren't sure why. We knew it would come. The guys never lost faith. But that doesn't mean there weren't a lot of sleepless nights."
After experimenting with a few different sets, including playing Shaq at the high post, D'Antoni decided to plunk his new big man on the block and leave him there. With O'Neal comfortably settled into the low post and his teammates spreading the floor around him, Phoenix morphed into a better 3-point-shooting team, a more prolific scoring team, and a better rebounding team.
The Suns ripped off seven wins in a row before losing to Detroit in overtime Monday night, holding opponents under 42 percent shooting. As Phoenix veteran Grant Hill duly noted, scoring never has been an issue for the Suns, but stopping teams has. No longer.
Think point guard Steve Nash is happy about the recent developments? During the winning streak, Nash shot 60 percent (48 for 80) from the floor, in part because nobody dares to leave the big man alone under there.
So now the Suns can play two ways: their traditional up-tempo pace, or a halfcourt, pound-it-inside Eastern Conference style.
"I love playing for this coach and I love playing with these guys," said O'Neal yesterday. "We have professionals who know what to do. No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I'm actually on a team again."
Note the swipe at his former employers, the Miami Heat. When Pat Riley engineered the blockbuster trade that brought Shaq to South Beach, O'Neal promised to deliver a championship. He did, but the cost of sticking with an aging roster has left the franchise in a freefall ever since.
The once-blissful marriage between Shaq and Riles ended badly. As their championship core crumbled, so did their relationship. Heat officials believe Shaq quit on them and point to his chronic hip problems that prevented him from playing in Miami but have not stopped him from averaging 29.3 minutes a night with the Suns. Conversely, Shaq believes Riley quit on him and saddled him with the blame for the franchise's implosion.
"I guess when you have a lot of power, you can do what you want," O'Neal said. "Me? If I ever came into that kind of power, I think I'd be willing to admit it if I messed up."
O'Neal's comments were met with silence out of Miami yesterday.
"I know what they said about me," Shaq said. "Grant [Hill] called me up and told me, 'They said you don't want to play no more.'
"Ever since I was a little kid, I've been the scapegoat when things went wrong. When I was in the classroom and somebody threw something at the teacher, she'd turn around and look at me first. She'd give me that look like, 'Shaq, you're a clown, it's got to be you.'
"I understand being the scapegoat comes with being the superstar. When it all goes right, you get the credit. And when it doesn't . . . I guess this is what you get.
"I can accept being the scapegoat when we do things my way and they don't work out. But when you have no control how things are handled, and you are still the scapegoat, I don't go for that."
O'Neal claims he's content with his reduced role in Phoenix and promised his new teammates he didn't need "no touches, no plays, no nothing." He said a conversation with Bill Russell earlier this season convinced him he shouldn't even glance at his statistics.
"He told me every big man in the history of the league saw his numbers go down toward the end of their careers," Shaq said. "I looked it up on the Internet. He was right.
"This team won 50 games last year without a big man. Steve Kerr said, 'We don't need 27 [points] and 10 [rebounds] from you. We need someone to slow up Tim Duncan and put a body on Yao [Ming] and [Andrew] Bynum.' "
Shaq, who is averaging 11.9 points and 10.5 rebounds in 17 games with Phoenix, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His legacy is secure, but, he conceded, he's aware of the image he's developed after acrimonious departures from Orlando, Los Angeles, and now Miami.
"I have not left any of the teams on good notes," O'Neal said. "We players have our own little fraternity. We talk about stuff, so I've got to figure the coaches do, too. They are probably saying I'm an [expletive]. So I came to Phoenix prepared to show them what kind of person I am."
This is the first time he's come to the Garden when the Celtics were legitimate contenders. O'Neal anointed Boston "the best team" yesterday.
"I like how unselfish their top three guys are," said Shaq, "and I like that they are having a good time. They also have all these other great pieces, like James Posey.
"I'm telling you, if we don't have him in Miami, we wouldn't have done it. He's willing to take charges, to take the big shots.
"I'm looking forward to [tonight]. I've never played them when they were Boston Boston. Back when they had those teams with Rick Fox and 'Nique [Dominique Wilkins], they were only Sort Of Boston.
"Now it's Boston Boston."
It's too soon to say whether Shaq can make Phoenix the Suns Suns. D'Antoni firmly believes his new roster gives his team a better chance at advancing in the postseason.
The big man on the block concurs.
"I'm not worried about what anyone says," Shaq said. "I've already had my Wonder Years. Now maybe I can bring these fellas a little happiness, too."
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.