His last game might start quieting those critics.
After playing an effective 17 minutes in a fast-paced blowout win, O’Neal should be well rested as the Suns host the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night in a matchup of the NBA’s highest-scoring teams.
Phoenix (42-22) traded for O’Neal in a blockbuster move on Feb. 6 to try to improve their interior defense and rebounding, especially against teams that play a half-court offense. The 7-foot-1, 325-pound center did just that in the Suns’ 94-87 win over San Antonio on Sunday, finishing with 14 points, 16 rebounds and two blocked shots while holding the Spurs’ Tim Duncan to 6-for-19 shooting.
O’Neal, though, is still trying to show he can be effective in a faster-paced setting - a necessity while playing with the Suns, who are second in the NBA in scoring with 109.6 points per game. He should get a chance to prove himself against the Warriors (40-23), who lead the league with 110.9 points per contest.
Suns coach Mike D’Antoni thinks O’Neal’s performance on Tuesday bodes well. Despite scoring only two points, O’Neal had eight rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots as Phoenix recorded its highest point total since the trade in a 132-111 win over Memphis.
“He didn’t have a point the first half, but I thought he controlled the whole game,” D’Antoni said.
More important than O’Neal’s individual contributions, the Suns have won back-to-back games for the first time since O’Neal’s debut to improve to 5-6 with him in the lineup.
“We’re just scratching the surface of how good we can be,” said Amare Stoudemire, who had 29 points and 13 rebounds versus the Grizzlies.
Steve Nash is optimistic as well, but he knows the team will encounter more growing pains as it adjusts to O’Neal’s presence in the middle.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Nash said. “I don’t think we should get too excited over it, but we are starting to see improvement. We are starting to see progress, and I think everyone’s confidence is going to grow if we continue to grow like this.”
The Suns meet an equally confident Warriors team that has won seven of its last eight games. Currently in eighth place in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture, Golden State trails sixth-place Phoenix by just 1 1/2 games and is only 4 1/2 games behind the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’ve never been involved in something this tight in my career,” Warriors point guard Baron Davis said. “This is just a tremendous time to be playing basketball. Every game is an opportunity to move up and see where we can finish.”
The Warriors’ prospects of moving up are better if Davis can duplicate his performance from Wednesday, when he had 23 points and 15 assists in a 117-106 win over Toronto. Davis had 10 points - including the Warriors’ last seven - and six assists in the fourth quarter.
“That’s his quarter, and he seems to get it to a different level in the fourth quarter,” Warriors coach Don Nelson said of Davis, averaging 27.2 points and shooting 57.0 percent from the field in his last five games. “He’s one of those rare guys that can do that.”
Davis has scored 27.5 points and dished out 11.0 assists to help the Warriors win their first two meetings with the Suns. Dating to last season, Golden State has won three straight in the series - its longest streak against Phoenix since a four-game run from Feb. 3-Dec. 16, 1982.