While it’s too early to judge the impact Shaquille O’Neal(notes) has had on the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s safe to say the Phoenix Suns have turned out rather well without him - their latest game notwithstanding.
A night after suffering a stunning lopsided loss, the Suns get their first look at O’Neal in a Cleveland uniform as they close a four-game road trip Wednesday night against the Cavaliers, whose other big man has been the center of attention in recent days.
Cleveland (12-5) was close to pulling off a deal for O’Neal near the league’s February trade deadline but couldn’t come to terms with Phoenix (14-4) on a deal that would have netted it the three-time NBA finals MVP.
The trade was revisited in the offseason, and on draft night Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry acquired O’Neal for Ben Wallace(notes), Sasha Pavlovic and a second-round draft pick, giving the team another inside presence and allowing veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) to come off the bench.
Phoenix has thrived without O’Neal, who some felt was a hindrance to its up-tempo style. The Suns are averaging a league-best 111.3 points and had scored at least 100 in every game before traveling to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
They couldn’t hit triple digits against the defensively challenged Knicks, however, and couldn’t slow New York either. The Knicks scored 39 points in the first quarter and cruised to a 126-99 victory.
Phoenix hadn’t suffered a more lopsided loss since falling to Detroit 116-86 on Feb. 24, 2008 - its third game after acquiring O’Neal from Miami.
“Terrible performance,” said point guard Steve Nash(notes), who had 20 points and eight assists. “I’m embarrassed. Obviously just a disastrous effort. We just have to wash it away and pick it up tomorrow.”
O’Neal has averaged 11.1 points in 11 games with the Cavaliers, who let him rest for six games in mid-November due to a strained shoulder. With Ilgauskas starting they averaged 102.0 points and went 5-1, and they’re 7-4 and scoring 97.5 points when O’Neal is in the lineup.
Cleveland turned in perhaps its best all-around effort in a 111-95 home win over Dallas on Saturday. O’Neal had nine points while LeBron James(notes) and Mo Williams(notes) each scored 25, but the attention afterward was on O’Neal’s backup.
Ilgauskas was set to become the Cavaliers’ franchise leader with 724 games played, breaking Ferry’s record, but never got off the bench. Coach Mike Brown said he intended on playing Ilgauskas for around 25 minutes as usual, but the tempo of the game made him change his mind.
That explanation didn’t sit well with James.
“I definitely thought he should’ve played,” said James, who’s averaging 34.6 points in his last eight games against the Suns. “As a friend of his, I was very upset and I know he was, also.
“I’m not trying to stir up anything with coach or whatever is going on with the organization, but sometimes one game is the smaller things.”
Brown said Tuesday that if he had to do it again, he would have played Ilgauskas - who’s averaging a career-low 7.1 points - and that the two-time All-Star will break the record against Phoenix.
If the Suns want to avoid dropping back-to-back games for the first time all season, though, they’ll need to contain Williams. Cleveland’s point guard averaged 37.0 points in leading his team to a two-game sweep of Phoenix last season, scoring a career-high 44 in a 109-92 win at Quicken Loans Arena on Feb. 11.
Nash, who’s averaged 25.3 points in his last three games against the Cavaliers, missed that game with back spasms.