Showing that he truly considers Phil Jackson “a great guy who always took care of me,” Shaquille O’Neal greeted his old coach Thursday with a pregame embrace in the hallway and a few inaudible whispers between the two dressing rooms.
When Phoenix coach Terry Porter was asked if he’s gotten the same hug treatment from O’Neal, he smiled and said, “I might be three or four championships away from that yet. But if that’s the standard, I look forward to it.”
Jackson said the 2008 version of O’Neal, now 36, has impressed him.
“He’s had some really active games where he’s been dominant out there; games when he’s been really good,” he said. “I think their offense looks like they’re trying to work him in there.”
In the three games this season (prior to Thursday) in which O’Neal had at least two days off before a game, the Suns were 3-0 and Shaq averaged 20.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks — including a 29-point, 11-rebound game at Milwaukee last Saturday.
“Back-to-backs will be tough at that age. They get to be a struggle,” Jackson said. “But he’ll be lively (Thursday), I can tell you that.”
TIME FOR CHANGE
Jackson said he never agreed with those who said the Suns didn’t play defense during the up-tempo, Mike D’Antoni era. “They just played at such a high pace that it changed the defense,” he said.
Still, he agreed with the decision to trade for O’Neal and, ultimately, part ways with D’Antoni and change their style.
“I think they pursued. They got to the Western Conference finals (twice) and semifinals, and when you come up short of that next step, then you make the changes,” he said. “If you get to the finals and win your conference, usually you stick with it. If you’re a growing young team like New Orleans, you make significant improvements, but on a minor scale.
“But if you end up butting your head against a certain position a number of times, you say, 'Well, maybe we’re going to have to make a change to get to where we really want to be.’
“It’s a risk, but the window is starting to close on some players. Steve (Nash) is getting up there in age. It’s not a five-year span for him anymore; it’s a sooner-rather-than-later kind of thing. This is a good step, the right thing.”
RIGHT ON SCHEDULE
Porter was pleased with Phoenix’s first 12 games and was able to keep the projected minutes in line despite injuries, suspensions and games lost to everything from family pregnancies to bereavement.
Amaré Stoudemire is far away the leader in minutes at nearly 42 a game, while the rest of the Suns are well under 35 minutes a night. Steve Nash (32.5), Raja Bell (32.3), Grant Hill (26.8), Shaquille O’Neal (26.7), Boris Diaw (24.0) and Leandro Barbosa (21.0) follow, many of them playing significantly less with Matt Barnes (28 minutes), Louis Amundson and rookies Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez seeing minutes.
“I look after five-game stretches and make sure we’re in line,” Porter said. “I don’t look after every game and worry if a guy gets 40 one night, he can only have 30 the next. We’ve tried to keep things consistent and it’s working out OK.”
Porter has no trouble understanding the Suns-Lakers rivalry. During his years as a player in Portland, the Blazers had a heated rivalry with the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers and, like the Suns, often presented a postseason road block.
When asked for his most vivid memory, Porter winced.
“Yeah, I remember. We reached the finals in (1990 and 1992) but the year in between, we won 63 games and really felt like we had the best chance to win,” Porter said. “But they knocked us out in six games in the Western Conference finals, the year Michael (Jordan and the Bulls) won the first title. Thanks for reminding me about that.”
Porter made a switch at the backup point guard position in the first quarter, bringing in rookie Sean Singletary instead of Goran Dragic for the first time. Singletary missed his first two shots during an 8-0 Lakers run over the final 2:27 of the first quarter that turned a 24-18 Suns lead into a 26-24 deficit. …
While the Suns came into Thursday with 12 games under their belt (seven on the road), the Lakers have had a much easier November. They play 11 of their first 15 games at the Staples Center (including a “road” game against the Clippers) and the game against Phoenix was only their 10th. The Lakers will have a tougher finish, with nine of their last 14 on the road. …
The last time someone other than the Suns or Lakers won the Pacific Division was 2002-03, when Sacramento was the champion. Since then, Phoenix has won it three times (2005-07) and Los Angeles twice (2004, 2008).