With Steve Nash missing another game, everyone knew Shaq needed to step up. Nobody thought he’d step up like this.
Shaq went off – to the tune of 45 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, and a block, while only missing five of his 25 shots from the field. With only Chris Bosh as a legitimate big man, it was clear early on the Raptors had no answer for the Big Cactus.
Shaq’s dominance led to a 133-113 victory for the Suns, their first ever win with both Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire out of the lineup since Nash returned to Phoenix in 2004.
“It was cool. Guys were really looking for me and I’ve been saying all year if I can get those touches like that I can do it every night,” Shaq told Suns.com. “I’ve been doing it on a consistent basis for 17 years and they were looking for me tonight.
“It was good that we figured out a way to get stops – offense has really never been a problem for us – we just have to find a way to get stops.”
Of course, Grant Hill’s double-double (14 points, 12 assists) and Louis Amundson’s best game of the year by far (20 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) helped a lot.
“I’ve had a few games where I wasn’t as confident as I could have been, but I got off to a good start tonight and Shaq was drawing so much attention that I was just cutting in there and finishing shots,” Amundson told Suns.com.
Shaq turns 37 next week and hadn’t had a 40-point game since 2004. But more importantly than a monster game, the Suns played one of those games where you sit back and think, “Man, if they can make the playoffs, avoid the Lakers in the first round, and get Amar’e back on time, they’ve got a chance to do something.”
They proved once again that even without Amar’e they can outrebound teams of equal or smaller size nightly, collecting two more boards than Toronto. They also proved that without him they can continue to score 90 points in the paint. They held the Raptors to just 36.
But it wasn’t all happy-happy-joy-joy in the Purple Palace. Right before the half, the Suns suffered a total defensive breakdown and saw their 12-point lead dwindle to just one in just over a minute before the half. The Raptors scored 11 in 1:06.
“We’ll take it, it was a good win,” head coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com. “We needed a win any kind of way we can get it. I thought we played well, but I was a little disappointed in the way that we finished the half. We took a couple of tough shots, and then we lost a couple people in defensive assignments. We went from 12 or 14 points right down to one, so that wasn’t very good.”
It was quite an exciting first half, though, that included Jason Richardson flying into the second row at half court, followed by Shaq doing what he seems to be doing almost weekly now by tumbling into about the sixth row. Hopefully nobody was hurt because it sure looked like some poor guy took a J-Rich shoe to the dome, and some poor blonde appeared to get whiplash when the Suns’ 325-pound center came crashing down on her.
Grant Hill also had an electrifying dunk in the first half that really made you wonder how old he really is.
The Raptors played well in the third, only to have their momentum sucked away right at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Bosh picked up his fifth foul.
“The first play of the fourth quarter typified it,” Toronto head coach Jay Triano told Suns.com. “They made a hard cut to the lane and Chris Bosh picks up his fifth foul. That’s when we kind of lost our momentum.”
Of course the other storyline coming into the game was Shawn Marion returning again to the Valley after doing so earlier this year as a victorious member of the Miami Heat. The Matrix finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds and three steals.
“It was cool,” Marion told Suns.com. “It’s always nice to come back here. This is where it all started. It would’ve been nice to get another win though.”
This contest was as close as you can get to a must-win for the Suns, who open a dreadful stretch of games Sunday at home against the Lakers.
Gentry called the game “winnable” on Thursday, and they really needed to pull this one out since after the Lakers the team goes on the road to face Orlando, Miami, Houston, and San Antonio before coming home to face Dallas and Cleveland. With Dallas’ overtime win against Oklahoma City, the Suns are still two games out of a playoff spot heading into Saturday.