Forget All-Star weekend, the REAL must-see game of the week happens 3 days after, on Wednesday, February 20, 2008, when the Phoenix Suns host the Los Angeles Lakers at 5:00 p.m. Alaska Standard Time (9:00 p.m. Eastern).
— Never mind that 5 current and former All-Stars take the floor,
— Never mind that Wednesday starts another chapter in one of the NBA’s all time storied rivalries: Shaq verses Kobe,
— Never mind that this matchup of division leaders will affect the losing team’s standings against the other as if they lost two games instead of one,
— Never mind that this game could potentially swing the “tie breaker” of this tight division race back to Phoenix,
— Never mind that the Lakers acquired Pau from the Grizzlies for his own brother,
— Never mind that the Suns acquired Shaq from Miami for his weight in Phoenix players …
What I want to know is, after blocking the Jason Kidd trade, then going out to shoot 0 for 11, how can (former Laker) Devin George look his Dallas teammates in the eye now?
Back to the subject, this Suns / Lakers matchup is about as intense as drama can get for a regular season game. Especially here.
Normally I wouldn’t blog about a game that hasn’t even been played yet, but seeing as nothing riles people up around here more than the Suns and the Lakers, I thought I’d make an exception.
STANDING FOR SOMETHING
The loss Phoenix suffered today at the hands of the Warriors, and the win the Lakers had at the expense of the Timberwolves brings the Lakers within 1 game of the Suns in the standings. Next on the menu for the Lakers is Atlanta. Next for the Suns is Dallas. It is possible the Suns and Lakers could be tied in the standings when they meet — tied, but the Lakers own the tie breaker. A Suns victory would give them breathing room. A Lakers victory could drop Phoenix from 2nd in the West to 5th, and vault the Lakers into the 2nd seed.
Shaquille O’Neal injured his hip diving for a loose ball against Utah on December 22. He returned January 16 but an MRI showed inflammation in the left hip, shutting him down from all basketball activity. He’s been cleared to play, but is struggling to get back in playing shape.
Kobe Bryant dislocated a finger on his right hand this road trip and his shooting and ball handling have suffered as a result.
Neither player is at full power, plus the two seemed to take a big step toward making up as the two teamed up to blast Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Consequently, the Kobe verses Shaq factor has really fizzled out.
The good news for the Phoenix Suns is that, over the last 10 games, the best two-player combination in the NBA, in terms of efficiency rating, is Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum (+120), and Andrew will not be playing. Drew missed the last game against Phoenix as well, the game the Suns won.
The bad news for the Phoenix Suns is that, over the last 10 games, the second best two player combination in the NBA is Shawn Marion and Raja Bell (+113), and Shawn won’t be playing either.
Also, since trading Marion, the Suns’ defense has become worse, their defensive rating is 113.7. That’s pretty bad, especially considering the Lakers are the 3rd highest scoring team in the league.
Not everyone thinks Phoenix did the right thing trading Marion and Banks for O’Neal, including Phil Jackson. When asked what he thought Shaq’s role would be on the Suns, he teased, “Taking the ball out of bounds and waiting for the other team to get back.”
Jackson has also said, “There’s diminishing returns for a guy who’s 7-foot-1, 300-whatever [pounds]. When you have multiple problems in your legs — feet, knees, hips — that’s the stability that holds up the frame. It’s real difficult. And I knew he’ll get in better shape as the year goes on, but … all the tall guys have back [and] stability issues that go with having to maintain their foundation.”
But, Jackson added, “He certainly can be a presence to contend with down there.”
Can Shaq’s presence and his newfound motivation overcome health problems though?
Speaking of health, Steve Kerr thinks Shaq will be great for his team’s mental health. “I don’t think there’s ever been a player who can change the attitude of a team like Shaq,” Kerr said. “[The trade] was also done for the mental health and emotional well-being of the team. I think [Nash] needed something like this. I think we all did, actually.”
If O’Neal can get the Suns a Western Conference Championship, Shaq would be the first player in league history to take four different teams to the NBA Finals. Tim Duncan can’t say that! 😉
The Suns will have had 6 days to rest their old bones and get Shaq ready before they meet the Lakers. The Lakers will be playing the second game of a back to back, and they’ll be on the road.
The game the night before the Lakers play the Suns is against the Hawks, the last team to beat the Lakers. These young Hawks are hard to predict. Their record isn’t all that great, but then again the Hawks have already beaten Western powerhouses Lakers, Dallas, Phoenix, New Orleans, Denver and Utah this season.
When the Hawks beat the Lakers, the Lakers got in at 4:00 a.m., were playing second game of a back to back on the road, Kobe had just injured his finger, and Pau Gasol was hampered by a sore back. The Lakers lost by 3.
The Lakers will probably beat the Hawks, but if Gasol and Bryant log minutes doing so, the Suns will have so much the advantage the next night. Remember, the Suns had 6 days to rest, and to practice with their new big man. And with Bynum out, Ariza out, Mihm out, and Ronny hobbled by an ankle twist, the Suns have a more than fair chance of downing the Lakers.
It is starting to look like Western Conference teams will need 50+ wins just to make the playoffs. I mean look at the Rockets: Houston has won 9 out of their last 10, and they are tied for the last playoff spot!
The Spurs are getting Tony Parker back after the All-Star break.
The Nuggets had an 8 game winning streak going into All-Star weekend, until the Jazz pried it from them.
Jazz have won 10 of their last 11.
But are all these teams just battling for second place?
The Celtics are 16 – 0 over the West!