When league experts pinpointed Jermaine O’Neal as on his way out following the Suns’ trade to acquire Marcus Morris, it made sense. O’Neal, after all, didn’t fit into what rebuilding Phoenix was attempting to do.
Unlike most of the team, O’Neal isn’t young or even in his prime. He’s 34. He is banged up.
There’s something else that sets the veteran big man apart from his teammates: he’s been an NBA go-to guy before.
It’s an asset the Suns needed and then some for a dramatic, come-from-behind 105-101 win against the vaunted Spurs. Heading into Wednesday night, San Antonio had lost just twice at home and stood atop the Western Conference.
O’Neal’s 22 points and 13 rebounds basically said, “So what?”
Count the former All-Star as the latest to find renewed life in Phoenix in the latter stages of his career. O’Neal had played well off the bench before. Wednesday, however, he became more than a good rebounder and scoring option. He became the Jermaine O’Neal fans remember in his prime.
He even did it against Tim Duncan, who surely remembers when such performances were commonplace while O’Neal was a member of the Indiana Pacers. Before the “Malice at the Palace” and the subsequent suspensions, the Pacers were among the favorites to make the NBA Finals, where the Spurs ended up that season.
O’Neal’s flashback, however, was more than just dredging up his once-routine low-post scoring and cagey rebounding. He showed a veteran’s patience, particularly on the game-saving play at the end of regulation. Having secured a crucial missed free throw, O’Neal had at least two teammates in the backcourt insisting he give up the ball with the precious seconds ticking away.
He ignored them. Instead he scanned the court, looking for a target that would give the Suns more than a prayer at extending the game. He found it in the form of a streaking Wesley Johnson, who wasted no time corralling the pass, turning, squaring up and draining the game-tying trey at the buzzer.
The entire sequence showed patience and — just as important — a refusal to panic with another close game on the verge of slipping away. Most, if not all, of O’Neal’s teammates would have let it.
O’Neal didn’t. Whether it was his odds-defying assist to end regulation or his hard-fought offensive rebound and putback to give the Suns the three-point lead they needed to pull it out in overtime, Phoenix’s elder statesman proved he’s “been there and done that.”
On a team full of youngsters still learning how to “be there and do that,” O’Neal was just what they needed.
Spurs nearly scoreless in OT
With Wesley Johnson serving as the primary defender on Tony Parker, the Suns blanked the Spurs (0-for-9 FG) from the field in the extra period.
Only one of those attempts came in the paint, with the remaining eight being split evenly between medium and long range.
New Morris sees crunch time
Head coach Lindsey Hunter continued to prove flexible in regards to his end-game lineups, going with recently acquired Marcus Morris in the closing minutes and overtime. Morris, along with emerging Wesley Johnson, teamed with Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and O’Neal.
Morris provided a key play with just over a minute left in overtime after his defender overplayed him. Rather than settle for a long, open jumper, Morris slashed to the rim. His shot was off, but the attempt had drawn the remaining Spur defenders away from the rim, allowing Gortat to tip in the go-ahead basket.
Gortat and Dragic were the only Suns to log more than 30 minutes in Wednesday’s game.
Dragic continues assist tear
While Dragic is Steve Nash’s undisputed successor, no one was outrageous enough to claim he could duplicate Nash’s numbers or overall effect — except that the Slovenian’s recent assist numbers are looking more and more Nash-like.
His 13 assists on Wednesday marked the fifth time in six games he has logged double-digit assist totals, including an 18-dime outing against Portland.
He also has 13 steals in that span.