PORTLAND, ORE. - When the Suns came here exactly two weeks ago, Shaquille O’Neal was still out of shape, dealing with physical problems and feeling his way with his new team.
But with each passing day and game, Shaq is looking healthier and more like his old dominant self — and the Suns are learning to play both with and without him with equal effectiveness.
Or, to use Steve Nash parlance: Training camp is just about over.
O’Neal produced 16 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, and Phoenix’s smaller lineup dominated the Blazers as the Suns kept rolling with a 111-98 win at the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
The Suns have now won five straight games for the first time in 2008. It matches their second-longest winning streak of the year, and the last such run ended way back on Dec. 7 — the 18th game of the season. More importantly, Phoenix moved within a game of the Western Conference lead — shared by Los Angeles, which won Tuesday against Dallas, and Houston, which had its 22-game winning streak snapped by Boston. The Suns are a half-game behind third-place New Orleans.
“Everyone contributed, everyone had spurts of good basketball and when it got messy, the big guy cleaned things up,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I thought we played pretty well from beginning to end. Shaq’s a big difference in there.”
Amaré Stoudemire led the Suns with 25 points and Nash had 22, including four of Phoenix’s 10 3-pointers.
The Blazers, who have lost to Phoenix seven straight times, probably played better than they did in a 97-92 loss here to the Suns on March 4 — except for star Brandon Roy, who was held to just six points on 3-for-14 shooting by Suns guard Raja Bell.
Phoenix now has its offense humming and its rotation in sync — and O’Neal is in the middle of it all.
“If anyone thinks that guy doesn’t have anything left, just hand out copies of that tape,” said Grant Hill, who had 11 points and made five of his seven shots despite playing with a bruised wrist. “Hopefully, people will learn not to get him upset. You don’t want to wake a sleeping giant.”
A fourth-quarter scrape with Portland center/Shaq-disturber Joel Przybilla just made O’Neal more determined. After the two exchanged words all the way down the floor and had to be separated twice, O’Neal put down a 7-footer over Przybilla, consumed Jarrett Jack on a drive to the basket and hit a streaking Boris Diaw in stride for a dunk and an 18-point Phoenix lead.
“They look like they’re jelling,” Przybilla said. “They are playing like the team they were talking about they were going to be. Shaq? I haven’t seen him move that well in a long time. I know he’s getting ready for the playoffs.”
The Suns are hitting on all cylinders — they are shooting 55.3 percent from the field during the winning streak, and the defense is holding opponents to 42 percent on the other end.
Six Suns had at least 11 points and five had at least one 3-pointer.
“We now have a little swagger and we expect good things to happen,” D’Antoni said.
Did you see that? The Blazers are 23-10 at home this season but have lost twice at home to the Suns in the last 14 days.
Player of the game: In a good team game on several fronts, Shaquille O’Neal was the fulcrum with 16 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and even a friendly handshake for Portland owner Paul Allen after being fouled in the fourth quarter.
Unsung hero: Raja Bell had only eight points but did a great job defensively on Portland’s Brandon Roy, who had 25 against Phoenix two weeks ago but managed only six points Tuesday on 3-for-14 shooting.
Thumbs up: Phoenix’s small lineup (Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa) extended the lead in each half. Diaw did a great job in the post, finding the open man when he was double-teamed and taking the ball to the rim when the defense backed off.
Thumbs down: Hard to argue with a five-game winning streak. Can the Suns dial it up on back-to-back nights in Seattle against the lowly Sonics? Lately, that’s been a problem.