Over the course of an 82-game season, some games will be just another monotonous affair and others will mean a little something extra.
Without question, Sunday’s 118-111 victory over the Lakers means more than just a little bit more for the Suns, who delivered their biggest statement of the year on a national stage with Amare Stoudemire still at home recovering from eye surgery and looking like one of the Jonas Brothers, as Jeff Van Gundy put it, in street clothes on the bench.
It’s the type of impact victory the Suns have lacked under head coach Alvin Gentry, who improves to 6-2 but had previously only beaten a who’s who of bottom feeders.
Hell, it’s the type of win Phoenix has missed all season, going 24-8 against losing teams but just 9-17 against winning clubs entering Sunday.
“I mean obviously it was a great win for us, against what I think is still the best team in the league,” Gentry told Suns.com.
After Thursday’s game, I wrote about how insurmountable the task was for the Suns to face off against the Lakers missing their two best players, wondering how the elite teams would do without their two stars.
Well, on Sunday afternoon Lakers not named “Kobe” or “Pau” combined for just 32 points on 31.6 percent shooting, whereas the stars combined for 79 on 53.6 percent shooting and were the only players to reach double digits for Los Angeles.
The Suns didn’t have their playmaking point guard or ferocious power forward – and even sharpshooterstruggled to just eight points on 3-for-10 shooting – but just about everybody else in the rotation played well, led by the Big Cactus himself.
After exploding for his highest point total in six years, Shaq followed up Friday’s 45-point avalanche with 33 more on 13-for-18 shooting and a team-high plus 16.
“It’s what I do,” O’Neal told Suns.com. “I’ve been doing it since 1992. If you don’t believe it, Google me.”
It might not be how Mike D’Antoni originally drew this offense up, but “Seven Seconds or Shaq” is proving to be just as effective.
When Phoenix wasn’t fast-breaking the Daddy controlled this game, as the Suns played through him to allow the Diesel to create for himself or others. He’s now scored 30 points back to back for the first time since he was Kobe’s teammate in 2004 after reaching his career high when facing the Lakers on Sunday.
He also became just the fourth player over 35 to score at least 33 in consecutive games, and Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Alex English weren’t bad either.
“A lot of people thought I lost it,” Shaq said. “It’s kind of funny to me, when I say, ‘I’m injured,’ no one believes me. Last year I was injured and this year I’m feeling pretty good. When you have it, you have it. I’ve been playing the same way for 17 years, and the only way that’s going to go away is when I consciously say I want it to go away.”
As opposed to the last few contests between these teams in which Shaq wasn’t the main factor for the Suns, ABC would have been right to bill this one as Shaq v. Kobe.
While Shaq was doing his thing, Kobe scored 49 but needed an NBA season-high 38 shots to do so, more than twice as many as the Shaqtus. He was particularly brilliant to start the second half when he bombed in 17 points in less than four minutes to bring the Lakers back from a 15-point deficit at one point up to a five-point lead.
But the Suns immediately answered with a 13-0 spurt, and Shaq took it from there.
For the individual tally, Shaq ended a four-game losing streak to Kobe and tied the rivals’ head-to-head matchup at four wins apiece. The Suns as a team snapped a four-game losing streak when facing Kobe’s Lakers, winning for the second time in eight tries.
Shaq was the featured attraction, but the Suns would not have emerged as victors without a career game from Matt Barnes, who is playing better as his responsibility increases.
In 42 minutes Barnes finished with a season-high 26 points on 8-for-12 shooting and 5-for-7 threes while adding 10 boards, seven assists and three steals. His triple with two minutes left to extend the lead to nine was a dagger, and then he added three of four free throws down the stretch.
The game after putting up an 18-6-6 against Toronto, Barnes has certainly found the shooting stroke that left him throughout a two-month slump.
After starting for the second straight game and seeing his role increase dramatically since Amare went down, it’s safe to say Barnes’ production goes up as he’s given more responsibility, especially considering how well he played to begin the season as a starter.
That goes hand in hand with how well-suited Barnes is for this system, as he’s gone from a player who didn’t even really belong in the Suns’ rotation as he struggled in January and much of February to one of their most vital cogs.
With Barnes now starting, Lou Amundson andwere the only reserves to see serious time, and I would expect them to make up the final two members of an eight-man rotation when Nash returns.
Gentry mixed up his rotation in this one after starting Alando Tucker on Thursday to guard Kobe and playing him a career-high 32 minutes. Despite Tucker’s career-high 16 points in that one, he was relegated to spectator status on Sunday.
The Suns also won because of strong games from Leandro Barbosa (22 points and seven dimes) and(17 points and six boards), but a rare porous day at the free-throw line almost cost them.
The Suns hit only 26 of 42 at the stripe (61.9 percent), which barely beat out their field-goal percentage (55.8 percent). Four different players missed at least three foul shots.
None of that mattered when Phoenix held tough down the stretch to pull out their biggest victory of the season, and it can’t be exaggerated how huge of a win this is.
If the Suns can beat the best team in the NBA missing Nash and Amare, who’s to say they can’t make a nice run when Nash returns as early as Tuesday?
The Lakers have been more or less unbeatable to the boys in purple and orange ever since the Gasol trade, but a game like this tarnishes Los Angeles’ aura of invincibility, which could be crucial if these teams meet up in the first round.
As much of a big deal as everybody rightly makes of the seven-game murderers’ row of a schedule Phoenix started on Sunday, the Suns can rightly tell themselves this: If they can defeat the mighty Lakers, they can beat anybody.
“It was a good win for us,” Shaq said. “Guys stepped up and played well, and I think if we can package that and do that consistently, we’ll be OK. It was a big win against the best team in the West, and now we have a tough road trip and we need to see if we can keep that going.”