He's not Superman anymore, but as Shaquille O'Neal showed this week, he can still fly. And maybe, just maybe, he can take his new Phoenix Suns team along for a ride.
While the Suns were sending a strong message with a win over San Antonio last Sunday, there was the highlight that has since become an Internet classic -- O'Neal saving a loose ball and diving headlong three rows deep into the US Airways Center crowd in a moment of flight that had everything but the red cape. The comedy continued one game later, when an almost identical scene repeated itself against Memphis and the entire Suns bench scurried away just in case O'Neal tried his rough landing again.
Since the early February trade that brought O'Neal from Miami and sent forward Shawn Marion to the Heat, the Suns have gone from dealing with runway delays to eventually taking off for friendlier skies. They enter tonight's game against the Kings with a 6-6 record since the deal went down.
The move, by all accounts, was made only with the playoffs in mind. The Suns walked away from their Western Conference finals loss to San Antonio last season thinking about more than the controversial and pivotal one-game suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. They were wary of how the big-man battle had gone, with Stoudemire undersized for the center spot and Marion equally limited when it came to taking on the Tim Duncans and Yao Mings of the league.
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First-year president of basketball operations Steve Kerr did the deal that came with a candid and accurate self-assessment -- "If it works, I'm a genius; If it doesn't, I'm a moron," he said. And so it was, the run-and-gun Suns were gone and the plodding, yet possibly more potent, version began.
"The playoffs are still quite a ways away and (O'Neal) is working himself into where he needs to be for when that times comes," Kings coach Reggie Theus said. "I think by the time the playoffs start, he's going to be 100 percent.
"They're still winning. Has it changed some of their rhythm? Yeah, of course. ... But the bottom line is that what they did is try to do something that's going to give them an edge when the playoffs start."
They were winning before, too, having posted regular-season win totals of 61, 54 and 62 in the past three seasons with point guard/two-time MVP Steve Nash. Soaring from there and beyond, clearly, was the intention.
Getting off the ground, though, isn't easy for a 16-year veteran. Despite his admittedly slowed state, O'Neal logged floor time at a heavier pace in his first 10 games with the Suns (an average of 30.1) than he had last season (28.4) and nearly as much as the 2005-06 campaign (30.8). His presence has often had the desired effect down low, as Phoenix's rebounding differential has gone from negative-5.6 without O'Neal to an average of positive-3.0 with him (plus-8.6 difference).