Let’s start by putting this game into perspective:
The Golden State Warriors have a .600 winning percentage. If they were in the Eastern Conference, they would hold the 4th seed and would have home court advantage, but since they are in the Western Conference, they would not even make the playoffs as things currently stand.
In the East, the 8th seed is 19 games behind the top seed. In the West, the 8th seed is 4.5 games behind the top seed.
In a race THIS TIGHT, it means something to hold the tie breaker, which is what this game was for the Suns and the Lakers.
What this game was NOT, was an indicator of how the Lakers and Suns will be come playoff time. Remember, Shaq has not played in 30 days, and this was his first game with the Suns. And Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza were out. If things go according to both teams’ plans, both teams will look different come playoffs.
So let’s talk the game itself.
Prior to tipoff, Shaq and Kobe hugged, exchanged pleasantries, then they both stepped out onto the floor and impressed me.
Shaquille O’Neal was a factor, a bigger factor than his stats would indicate.
In 27 minutes, Shaq:
— touched the ball 27 times
— grabbed 9 rebounds
— blocked 2 shots
— collected 3 assists
— had 3 turn overs
— committed 5 fouls
— scored 15 points
— was 0 of 2 for layups
— was 2 of 2 for dunks
— was 4 of 4 for jump shots (all in the paint)
— was 3 of 8 for free throws, not counting the 2 misses he had on lane violations
— gave Raja Bell a serious bump on the head
— tackled Pau Gasol to get his 5th foul and a rest on the bench
Shaq hustled end to end just fine, and even dove for loose balls.
Shaq’s play of the day, though, was sprinting back on defense after getting a goaltending call on Kobe Bryant. It was hilarious!
As I said, Shaq’s impact on this game can’t be found in his stats, it can be found in Amare Stoudemire’s stats as well.
Having O’Neal lets Amare dominate at the 4 position, and boy did he dominate. Amare had 37 points on 54% shooting with 4 dunks, was 11 of 11 at the charity stripe, grabbed 15 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 blocked shots.
Shaq’s impact can also be found in the fact that with him on the floor, everyone shifts position and the Suns go from being undersized at every position to being competitive.
No where is this shift more evident than in rebounding.
This year the Phoenix Suns have been out rebounded by an average of 6 rebounds per game. Since you can’t run if you don’t have the ball, that is a very big problem for the Suns.
The Lakers on the other hand, are the 4th best rebounding team in the NBA, yet tonight the Suns out rebounded the Lakers 46 to 33! In fact, the Suns had a 16 to 7 advantage in offensive rebounds, ultimately helping them get 19 second chance points.
So why didn’t the Suns win?
Suns coach Mike D’Antoni was asked at halftime why his team was down, and he simply said, “The Kobe Factor.”
That ended up being why the Suns were down at the end of the game as well.
In the post game press conference, Shaquille O’Neal was asked what he thought of Kobe Bryant’s play. Shaq replied, “Kobe is the best player in the league; he really is.”
That’s not to say Kobe didn’t have help, because he had PLENTY of it. Five Lakers scored in double figures, Pau Gasol had 29 points and Lamar Odom had a double double (22 points and 11 rebounds).
But Kobe’s night was special.
Kobe’s latest free throw streak ended tonight at 50 in a row. The last time a free throw streak ended for Kobe Bryant was 62 in a row, and it ended against the Toronto Raptors, and Kobe took it out on them to the tune of 81 points, so I wondered what he would do tonight.
— had 2 steals
— blocked 2 shots
— grabbed 5 rebounds
— dished 3 assists
— was 4 of 6 on layups
— was 9 of 15 on jump shots
— was 3 of 3 on dunks
— was 8 of 10 on free throws
— nailed his usual share of impossible shots
— attracted double and triple teams all night long
— Kobe also led well. There were a lot of bad calls tonight, particularly in the second half, and Kobe kept his composure and the Lakers did as a unit as well. In fact, Kobe’s whining is WAY down, and that started prior to the Gasol trade.
— Phil Jackson used 10 players in the first half. Mike D’Antoni played 7. In the second half, Jackson again played 10 people whereas D’Antoni played 8.
— The Lakers actually outscored the Suns on fast breaks 22 to 20.
— When Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum return to the Lakers’ line up, I would think Luke Walton’s minutes would be most affected. He just isn’t the player he was last year when he was looking for a new contract.
— I was more impressed with Shaq’s debut than Jason Kidd’s.
— Shaq got better as the game raged on, doing his best work in the 4th quarter. If Shaq were over the hill, it would be the opposite, so that is a good sign for Suns fans.
— Another encouraging thing for Suns fans was the dramatic turnaround in rebounding. As they get used to playing together and turnovers go down, this rebounding edge will translate into easy baskets for the Suns.
— The Lakers have good reason to be optimistic. The team that has owned them in the post season the last two years now looks to be beatable by them.
— Pau showed he can play smart with foul trouble. He also showed he can vanish when it comes time to rebounding. The Lakers needed much more than 3 rebounds from Gasol.
— Vladimir Radmanovic did not show up for this game. On defense, his men went off, and on offense Radman was as effective as a speed bump on a runway.
— As intense as this game was, the sportsmanship was impressive. Kobe helped Raja Bell off the floor and checked on his well being in the first quarter, In fact, all through the game, Suns were helping Lakers off the floor, Lakers were helping Suns off the floor, and in all interviews, the snippiness was conspicuously absent, even from the notoriously caustic Phil Jackson.
The Lakers and the Suns are classy organizations, and it was fantastic to see these fierce competitors reflect that on the court.