Now that their opponent isn’t one of the NBA’s best teams, they’re hoping for another different outcome: a comfortable win.
The Suns will try to rebound from their worst loss of the season on Tuesday night, when they visit the Memphis Grizzlies for the teams’ first meeting of 2007-08.
Phoenix (38-18) has gone just 1-2 with O’Neal in the lineup since trading for him earlier this month, but the Suns’ three opponents have been the teams with the NBA’s three best records.
Still, it’s been hard to determine O’Neal’s impact on the team given the Suns’ roller-coaster performances in the past week, which started with a 130-124 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and continued with an 85-77 win over the Boston Celtics.
The most troubling result came Sunday, when Phoenix lost 116-86 to the Detroit Pistons, as O’Neal had just seven points, shooting 3-of-8 from the field and 1-of-8 from the free throw line.
“We still have to be realistic about things,” O’Neal said. “I’ve only been here about eight days. This is only my third game with the guys, so we still have a lot of figuring out to do. If everyone just sticks with their role, we should be fine.”
The Suns, especially coach Mike D’Antoni, also seem optimistic despite a few discouraging signs.
With O’Neal, Phoenix has averaged just 98.3 points, more than 10 below its season average of 109.2. Also, Steve Nash is only averaging 6.3 assists in the three games, lowering his league-leading average to 11.4.
Before Sunday, the Suns hadn’t lost a game by 30 or more points since March 2006. D’Antoni compared the Suns’ outing to a new golfer who plays well the first two rounds but struggles the third time out.
“We’re disappointed, obviously, the players are disappointed,” D’Antoni said, “but you just don’t bring a guy like (O’Neal) and all of a sudden you’re the best in the league. So we’ve got some work to do and some steps to take and we’ll get back there.”
Asked when he thought the Suns would finally jell, he said, “It better be by Tuesday. We’re in a race.”
Phoenix is one of seven teams within three games of the Western Conference lead.
O’Neal’s presence certainly hasn’t slowed the torrid scoring pace of Amare Stoudemire, who has thrived at his natural position of power forward. Stoudemire had a game-high 31 points against the Pistons, and has averaged 32 points in the last three games.
One of his eight career 40-point games came against the Grizzlies (14-42) last season, as he had 42 in a 137-122 win at Memphis on Jan. 15, 2007. Including that game, Phoenix has won five straight against the Grizzlies, averaging 112.4 points.
Memphis has also lost five straight and 11 of 12 overall, and is 1-10 since trading Pau Gasol to the Lakers.
The Grizzlies lost 109-89 at Cleveland on Sunday without second-leading scorer Mike Miller, who was out for a third consecutive game with a back injury. Memphis trailed 32-13 at the end of the first quarter and fell behind by as many as 28 in the first half, but cut the lead to 12 in the fourth quarter.
“I was really proud of the way our guys came out of the locker room in the second half, as poorly as we played in the first half,” Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni said. “We came out a little bit waiting for something to happen instead of making something happen, and we got that result.”