The Shaquille O’Neal experiment is one game old. How’d it go?
It’s too soon to tell.
That was always going to be the case. It didn’t matter whether O’Neal scored four points or 40 points in the Suns’ 130-124 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday.
Phoenix didn’t acquire O’Neal to win games in February. They brought him in to win games in April. And May. And most, of all, June.
So to judge the Shawn Marion-for-O’Neal trade on 29 minutes of work — particularly when the Suns are just getting used to Shaq and vice versa — would be foolish.
The Suns are a work in progress. Shaq is a work in progress. Check back come the postseason, and we’ll know if Phoenix’s gamble turned out to be a rousing success or a spectacular failure.
But after one game, we can say this: Shaq may not be the old man we thought he was.
O’Neal had 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in the Suns’ loss, but the numbers weren’t as important as the way he played.
He dove to the floor for loose balls. He got back on defense and kept up with Phoenix’s breakneck style offensively. He even sprinted to the other end of the floor after Kobe Bryant was called for goaltending on his jump shot.
For a 36-year-old man who hadn’t played in a month and supposedly has the joints of an arthritic senior citizen, it was a debut filled with possibilities, if not answers.
“I felt pretty good,” O’Neal said. “I’m in better shape than I thought I was.”
The Suns treated Shaq’s first game as if he was royalty, introducing a video montage that ended with O’Neal standing tall along the downtown Phoenix skyline.
But for the first three quarters, O’Neal was the Big Role Player. He let Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire be the Alpha Males offensively — “I told them, ‘Don’t run the offense through me,” Shaq said — and was a non-factor on the defensive end.
In fact, it was readily apparent that the Lakers were not only the better team — remember, they were missing center Andrew Bynum — but Pau Gasol was a more significant pickup than O’Neal.
Were there moments the Shaq of old showed up?
He made a rim-rattling dunk over DJ Mbenga that brought the house down. He showed off his nifty passing skills, once finding Leandro Barbosa with a no-look pass for an easy layup.
But for the most part, he didn’t look like he was worth the $40 million the Suns will pay him the next two seasons.
Then the fourth quarter happened, and Superman got his cape out of mothballs.
O’Neal scored seven straight points in a 2-minute and 45-second stretch.
He dunked off a Nash lob pass. He slammed home a Stoudemire miss. He hit a jump hook over Gasol.
And that sprint to the other end of the floor after the goaltending call on Bryant?
Vintage Shaq the Showman.
“I was the first big man to run the court,” O’Neal said. “I’ve had a couple of injuries, and you earthlings think I can’t run. Steve Nash has told me to get my Randy Moss on.”
O’Neal answered whatever questions there were about his ability to fit into Phoenix’s offense.
The Suns ran when they could, and when they settled into a half-court set, Shaq was the third option behind Stoudemire and Nash.
It’s the other end of the floor that has to concern the Suns. The Lakers’ 130 points were the most Phoenix has allowed in regulation all season.
The Suns dearly missed Marion’s versatility. Bryant abused Raja Bell — scoring 41 points on 16-of-25 shooting — and Phoenix didn’t have anyone who could give Bryant a different look.
One more thing: Shaq was 3 of 8 from the foul line. In close games, that free-throw shooting will be a liability.
Still, it was an encouraging opening act.
“I thought Shaquille was great and I think the possibilities are very exciting for us,” Nash said.
And if Shaq continues to play like he did in the fourth quarter, he’ll have a new nickname:
The Big Solution.