Shaq toughness helps Suns scale Mt. Duncan

PHOENIX – Blood trickled from the mouth of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire went to the bench with too many fouls and the Phoenix Suns watched another lead disappear into the crisp desert air.

This is how it's gone for the Suns against the San Antonio Spurs. Nash bleeds, Tim Duncan bruises the rest of them. For a few tense fourth-quarter minutes Sunday looked no different, and then Manu Ginobili took two hard dribbles into the lane and launched himself toward the rim.

This time?

Ginobili walked away with the sore ribs and the loss.

The Suns brought Shaquille O'Neal here to win games like this, to help them finally scale Mt. Duncan, and, for one afternoon, at least, he delivered.

O'Neal scored 14 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked a couple of shots and even dove three rows into the stands in the gritty 94-87 victory. But there wasn't a line on the stat sheet for his greatest contribution: With at least one member of Phoenix's locker room beginning to wonder whether the franchise had traded the Western Conference's best record for a 330-pound pipe dream, O'Neal showed the Suns how to out-Spur the Spurs.

The Suns locked in their defense, hit a couple of timely shots and clawed out a win when a loss seemed likely. San Antonio shot only 34.9 percent for the game and went the final 5:20 with just one basket. With O'Neal leaning on him much of the second half, Duncan made only two of his 11 attempts.

"We've had many good battles," O'Neal said. "He's had to go through me. I've had to go through him. I pretty much know what he's going to do."

That's why the Suns gambled their season on O'Neal. The Los Angeles Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol certainly alerted Phoenix to the need to get bigger in the fast-growing West, but the first two words off the lips of Suns officials when asked why they made the trade? "Tim" and "Duncan."

Duncan naturally blamed himself for the loss, saying he simply missed some shots he usually makes, and there's evidence of that. With the score tied and a little less than three minutes left, he drove to the rim. O'Neal, carrying five fouls, backed off. Duncan still bricked the wide-open layup.

"We're usually better than that down the stretch," Duncan said. "Credit to them."

Regardless of how many of their wounds were self-inflicted, the Spurs had to admit this much: Phoenix is "different" with O'Neal. Not even the Suns are ready to project themselves better, but their new style could help in a bruising playoff battle. The most impressive stat of the night? Phoenix won despite making only three 3-pointers.

"He's a big body," Ginobili said. "So whenever we finish, it's not the same, having a 7-3 guy, or whatever he is, in there."

Ginobili realized that when he drove into the lane with less than a minute left and the Spurs down three. O'Neal jumped, forcing Ginobili to alter his shot while also clubbing him in the process. A foul was probably warranted, but Ginobili didn't protest.

O'Neal's presence also seemed to enthuse Stoudemire, who opened the game on Duncan, but made his biggest impact in the fourth quarter with his weakside defense. Once, Duncan ducked by O'Neal only to have Stoudemire chip away his shot.

"You have to shoot over both of them," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's what we were missing before."

So when Stoudemire picked up his fifth foul with 6:51 left and O'Neal followed with his fifth less than a minute later? D'Antoni left them on the floor, reasoning that "both can't foul out at the same time."

The Spurs weren't wasting much time fretting about the loss. After winning 11 in a row, they've now dropped two straight and their torturous March schedule continues Monday with a visit from Denver. Games against New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston follow.

"It's never been like this where you lose two, three games and you go from the top to the bottom," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I think everybody is playing with a little playoff intensity a little bit earlier this season than we normally would."

The Suns needed Sunday's game more than the Spurs, and D'Antoni admitted as much. Phoenix had won only three of its first nine games with O'Neal, leading more than a few local hang-up-and-listen psychologists to question whether the Big Cactus was little more than a Big Drag on the Suns' playoff hopes. Suns guard Raja Bell even expressed reservations about the trade, telling the East Valley Tribune, "I support the decision and the people who made it, but I honestly just didn't think there was anything terribly wrong with us."

"When we made the trade we started to go bad, which is kind of a normal thing, and now it's like, 'Gosh, we can't get this thing going,' " D'Antoni said. "That saps your energy. If you come in happy, the aura's right in the universe and the stars are aligned then things go well. But some times you have to make them align. I thought we did that today."

O'Neal did his best to ensure as much. In the third quarter he soared into the third row of fans while chasing the ball, jumping over a couple of boys in the process.

"I was thinking," D'Antoni said, "I'm glad my family's not in that section."

"I saw some kids," O'Neal said, "so I had to shift 15 degrees to the left."

Phoenix's training staff is optimistic O'Neal will become even more nimble if he continues to follow his manual therapy program, and there's reason to believe them: The Suns threw their previous recovery project, 35-year-old Grant Hill, on Tony Parker for the final six minutes and he held the Spurs' fleet-footed point guard without a basket.

"It felt like a Duke-Carolina game," Hill said later, laughing. "And Duke won."

No, Sunday was typical Spurs-Suns. Blood, elbows, a technical foul or two. Only this time someone else limped away.