The return of the Shaqtus


PHOENIX — Shaq, LeBron, Nash, Amare.

There’s a palpable excitement in US Airways Center this evening as the Suns get set to take on one of the NBA’s elite teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in a star-studded matchup.

“It should be fun to play against these guys,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said about an hour before tipoff in his office. “I tell our guys all the time that these are the games you should really enjoy playing. You get to play against a great team and two guys that for sure are going to be in the Hall of Fame. We’re at home and we feel like we can play against any team at home. I don’t know where the pressure is. I think it will be very enjoyable.”

I doubt the return will be enjoyable for the Shaqtus, at least in terms of fan reaction (there were mixed cheers and boos during pregame intros). I expect Suns fans to unleash their frustrations on the man who pointed to his ring finger and then delivered just one more playoff victory than you and I did.

Tonight’s game will inevitably be viewed through the prism of how different the Suns are with a floor-spacing three-point shooter in Channing Frye instead of the hulking Shaqtus in the middle. In their previous meeting in Cleveland, Shaq ate Frye up down low but Frye responded with a team-high 22 points despite missing some shots early. The Suns will match up Frye on Shaq to start and hope he stays out of foul trouble while Gentry expects the Cavs to defend Amare with Shaq.

Gentry also said there is no revenge factor to this game after Cleveland wiped the floor with the Suns in their last game, a contest in which the Suns had played the night before and the Cavs rested, whereas that script will be flipped tonight.  However, there is inherently some revenge on the line with the man who promised so much but delivered so little coming to town.

One last note, the Suns last lost a home game on March 12, 2009, when the Cavs visited. Will Cleveland become the second consecutive visiting team to win in US Airways after the Suns have reeled off 19 straight?

Here’s Gentry’s take on a number of issues surrounding this game from his pregame chat with reporters:

On Shaq: “He’s one of those rare guys that the kids love him, the adults love him. Never a dull moment with him in the locker room, and honestly he’s played at a real high level for a lot of years.”

On the Cavs: “Obviously they’re a great three-point shooting team, so we probably won’t double Shaq early in the game and see how we do against htem. I think it’s important for us to keep Channing on the floor. We may have to give up some baskets early just to keep the pace of the game where we want it, and then obviously we’ll see what happens in the fourth quarter.”

On what Frye can do against Shaq: “Well, he can make shots. He had a lot of open shots that he didn’t make that I think he’s very capable of making. We’re confident he can do that, and he’s just got to keep himself out of foul trouble. He got two fouls very early, and with him not there takes away our floor spacing a little bit, too.”

On the Shaq-Marion trade: “For us I thought it was great because we struggled to get past San Antonio. That was our Achilles’ heel, and we just could not seem to handle Tim Duncan in any way. We just couldn’t handle Tim, he was just too long and everything. Me personally I thought he gave us an opportunity to have a chance to beat those guys because I thought that over the years Shaq has always played well against Tim, and he always was a guy who could guard him without double teaming the ball. We always had to double team him.”

On defending LeBron: “Grant straight up and hope that he’s in a jump shot-shooting mood and they’re not going in. That guy is a different beast. He’s like nobody else in the NBA. No one has that size and that speed, not even close.”

On J-Rich’s hand: “It is (bothering him), but I think he’s one of those guys, it is what it is, he doesn’t worry about it.”

On keys to the game: “We have to make sure that we keep the rhythm of the game and the pace of the game. That’s going to be really important. … We did make shots back there, but we had turnovers. You cannot turn the ball over against this team.”

On Shaq’s fit in Phoenix: “The only thing that I disagree with is everyone said we couldn’t run, we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that with him. We still led the league in scoring, we still led the league in field-goal percentage, and we still the last 30 games I think we averaged 117, so obvioulsy that can’t be the case because he was playing 30 minutes a game. We wanted the floor more open to play like that. That really is not a negative toward him. It’s more what we thought we needed to do. That’s really the bottom line.”

On if he’s surprised that Shaq was able to play in the Suns’ system: “I don’t think so because he’s such an athlete, and you go back and look at the Lakers team, they played triple post, the triangle, but a lot of their things the initial thrust was the break and see what happens there.”