Well, kind of.
Generally the Suns won’t be happy to play .500 ball over any stretch of games, but doing so this week when hosting the Pistons, Lakers and Blazers and going to Utah has to be seen as an accomplishment of sorts after the Suns finished off Portland on Saturday, 102-92.
Those four teams boast a combined record of 35-16 (.686) and would be formidable any time of year, even more so this early while the Suns are still trying to find themselves.
What we’ve learned is the Suns need to play with energy if they want to beat a good team on the road (see Utah game) and that they can’t be considered on par with the Lakers yet, but they are a quality team that can pound other good teams with the Shaq-Amare combo down low.
Against the Blazers, the duo combined for 36 points and 26 boards, providing a force Portland could not contain. Shaq alone grabbed a season-high 17 boards, seven of the offensive variety.
The Suns did a lot of things right in this one, shooting 53.3 percent while holding the Blazers to 38.9 percent shooting. It truly was a balanced effort, as Phoenix’s top seven guys scored between nine and 19 points.
In his postgame presser, head coach Terry Porter pointed to just two areas of concern from this game: rebounding and turnovers.
Overall the Suns won the rebounding battle 44-36 with Shaq leading the way, but it should have been more lopsided with all the shots the Blazers clanked. Portland managed 17 offensive rebounds on a night it only picked up 19 defensive boards with all the shots the Suns were making.
Raise your hand if you’re surprised Porter mentioned turnovers as a Suns weakness.
It’s been Phoenix’s Achilles’ Heel all season, something Porter said has to be cleaned up if the Suns want to beat the elite after losing the turnover battle, 15-7, to the Lakers.
It’s no surprise the Suns turned the ball over 12 times in their 41-point first half against Portland and cut that number to six in their 61-point second half.
“When we don’t turn it over, we don’t allow our opponents to get easy baskets, and in this league, turnovers lead to easy baskets for opponents,” Porter told Suns.com. “It gives our guys a chance. We did a much better job in the third quarter at not turning the ball over as much at critical times.”
On Saturday, Steve Nash turned the ball over eight times, something he rarely did in the old offense despite its fast pace. The point guard ranks fifth in the NBA averaging 3.5 turnovers per contest.
For the season, the Suns rank second-to-last in turnovers per game at 16.7 and second-to-last in turnovers forced per game at 12.2.
The turnover issue goes hand in hand with the Suns acclimating themselves to the new system, and going forward that’s the biggest issue Phoenix needs to resolve before its next set of showdowns against the NBA’s elite.
Porter channeled his inner D’Antoni on Saturday, caving into playing just eight players and practically seven since Sean Singletary saw just eight minutes of floor time.
Since Porter likes having a true point guard on the floor at all times, that means Steve Nash played a season-high 40 minutes.
You can attribute that to a combination of the importance of the Suns snapping out of their two-game losing streak against a quality West opponent or just Porter’s lack of confidence in his rookie backup point guards. In that vein, Goran Dragic has not gotten off the bench the last two games aside from four garbage minutes against the Lakers.
For the season Nash is averaging 33.2 minutes per game, just a minute or two less than his averages from the D’Antoni years He averaged 36 minutes during the past four showdown contests, a result of Leandro Barbosa being out and/or Porter’s willingness to push him in big games.
Speaking of Barbosa, I still can’t wait to see how he fits into Porter’s shortened rotation now that we’re starting to learn the head coach will go to just eight or nine in big games and forget developing the rookies, a stance that helped D’Antoni get a one-way ticket to New York but frankly I can’t really disagree with.
One more rotation note, Porter played his starters for all but the final five seconds of the third, and it worked. The starters ended the quarter on a 15-3 run that basically won the game.
Maybe Porter remembered the teams’ first meeting, when Portland’s bench destroyed Phoenix’s.
Shaq still the “shogun”
There’s not much of a question concerning who got the better of the hyped battle between “old man” Shaq and heralded rookie Greg Oden.
Shaq played a vintage game with his 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting and 17 boards, tied for the Big Cactus’ second-best regular-season rebounding total since January 2005, a time so long ago the D’Antoni Suns were first taking the NBA by storm and the Daddy was playing his first season in South Beach.
Oden, meanwhile, barely stayed on the floor, accumulating five fouls in 14 minutes (two drawn by Shaq). The former first overall pick also scored five points, grabbed a rebound, hit 1-of-4 free throws and turned it over twice.
In the second half, Oden entered the contest with 4:05 remaining in the third and his team trailing, 60-59, and he left after his fifth foul with 10:37 left in the fourth and his team behind, 76-63. Shaq was on the floor for the majority of that run.
Shaq’s take on the NBA’s hierarchy of centers after the matchup, via Suns.com: “I’m the shogun. And before you get to the shogun, you’ve got to go through a lot of ninjas. He has to go through Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, and by that time, I’ll be out of here.”