PHOENIX – The arena went dark, the flames stretched halfway to the ceiling and somewhere out of the pyrotechnics and howling fans Shaquille O'Neal rose from his seat and lumbered into the most ferocious conference race the NBA has ever seen.
O'Neal would go on to score 15 points, collect nine rebounds, scalp DJ Mbenga with a punishing dunk and take out a ref and “Mr. Pau” while twice diving to the floor in his 29-minute debut for the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. He would also leave with a loss.
For as encouraging as O'Neal's performance was for the Suns, the evening still belonged to Kobe Bryant, whose 41 points, coupled with 29 more from Pau Gasol, allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to claw out a 130-124 victory in a game that proved as thrilling as it had promised to be.
Said Bryant: “I felt a familiar energy in the building.”
Everyone better get used to it. The Western Conference race is running nine deep these days with five games separating top from bottom. A three-game losing streak, as New Orleans Hornets coach Bryon Scott recently said, “could leave you on the outside looking in.” The competitiveness has even stretched from the court to the front office with the teams seemingly trying to one-up each other with trades.
The Big Aristotle was the center of attention at US Airways Center Wednesday, but it was the wisdom of 21st century philosopher Cedric Ceballos who put the evening in perspective for the entire conference. Delivering a rousing opening to the crowd moments before tipoff, Ceballos nodded first to the Lakers then to his Suns. “You got bigger. We got bigger,” he shouted. “You got better. We got better.”
So it has gone for the West. You got Gasol? We're getting Shaq. Well, we just landed Jason Kidd. The Utah Jazz's earlier pickup of Kyle Korver already has proven to be a season-changing transaction. The San Antonio Spurs, rarely prone to making in-season trades, realized they better step up in size and acquired rugged center Kurt Thomas from the Seattle SuperSonics on Wednesday for Brent Barry, Francisco Elson and their 2009 first-round draft pick.
The trade could have further implications for the conference. The Sonics are expected to waive Barry, possibly freeing the sharp-shooting guard to sign with a rival like Golden State or Phoenix once his calf injury heals.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, frustrated by the Memphis Grizzlies' decision to send Gasol to the Lakers for little more than a pair of first-round picks and a promising young guard, had jokingly proposed creating an NBA committee to negate all trades “that make no sense.” Lakers coach Phil Jackson, noting that Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo and GM Sam Presti both worked for the Spurs last season, couldn't resist a jab of his own Wednesday.
Thomas is “very efficient as a player,” Jackson said, grinning. “So there's no doubt about the fact that PJ would send him on over to San Antonio without any hesitation.”
The flurry of trades has been sparked in part by the ever-growing divide between the league's haves and have-nots. Struggling teams like the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and New Jersey Nets are looking to dump salary and compile draft picks or younger players.
“If you've got a chance to win a championship,” Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said, “you bite the bullet and try to get the championship.”
That's why Phoenix agreed to take on O'Neal and the $40 million left on his contract after this season. The Suns, in D'Antoni's words, had become stale. Even Phoenix's fans, Steve Nash noted, had begun to lose some of their passion.
For one night at least, O'Neal changed that. The atmosphere was charged. Both teams played at a high level, totaling only 21 turnovers despite taking 185 shots. The game was fast and, for the most part, O'Neal kept pace despite taking the court for the first time in nearly five weeks.
After spending much of the first three quarters trying to set up his teammates, O'Neal called for the ball as the pressure built. He flushed a lob from Nash. Threw down a put-back dunk. Tossed in a short turnaround. Added another jump hook. All of it taking only a little more than two minutes.
Even Bryant had to smile at the sight. “He went back to ground and pound,” Bryant said. “It was pretty awesome to see.”
The Suns walked off the floor encouraged by their performance. So much so that O'Neal brazenly declared, “When we get used to each other we're going to be the most dangerous team ever created.”
The Lakers will have something to say about that. As will the Dallas Mavericks, Spurs, Hornets, Jazz, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. The final 30 games – “a college season” Jackson said – promises to be a two-month slugfest if Wednesday was any indicator. Playoff seeding and home-court advantage don't figure to matter as much as simple survival.
“The team that's playing the best will win,” O'Neal said. “Period.”
Provided, of course, anyone's left standing.