The Suns' Shaquille O'Neal is 668,151 votes behind Houston's Yao Ming for the starting Western Conference center spot in next month's All-Star Game at US Airways Center. But the NBA's most-recognized player can lean on his game instead of his fame this time.
A year ago, the thought of O'Neal being an All-Star again seemed as far-fetched as the Suns trading for him. O'Neal was passed in voting by Dwight Howard in 2007. His record-tying streak of 14 consecutive All-Star appearances ended last year when fans and coaches passed on him. Just before a February trade to Phoenix, there were retirement rumors, and a hip injury had sidelined him for 14 of his final 18 Miami games.
Now, O'Neal enters the start of a three-game Suns homestand Friday night with his first three-game streak of 20-point, 10-rebound outings since March 2005. In his past seven games, O'Neal is averaging 24.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Yao is a lock to start for the West, but no other West center besides Minnesota's Al Jefferson (22.6 points, 10.3 rebounds per game) has better season averages than O'Neal (17.2 points, 8.9 rebounds).
O'Neal said he should be an All-Star on his home floor but said "I'm not going to be doing e-mail campaigns and putting on cowboys hats."
He has campaigned to get the ball more. The Suns obliged in this week's wins with Steve Nash (back spasms) and Amaré Stoudemire (fouled out Monday, ejected Tuesday) essentially out. Nash practiced Thursday and expects to play Friday night.
"I know I like to be heavily involved," O'Neal said. "I told Steve (Kerr) and I told Terry (Porter) that I can't be the Shaq you want me to be, shooting four out of five, nine rebounds. I'm known to wreak havoc offensively, make teams double, get my teammates involved. That's what I'm known to do, and I still have the ability to do that. I've shown that. If I'm involved, into the flow, doing what I'm doing, then I can still put up big numbers, especially the way I've been shooting from the free-throw line (66 percent in December).
"I always wanted to be involved. I just didn't want to come and change things too quick. Now it's sort of a medium new system. We run a little. We slow it down a little. We can be masters at both, because that's what it really takes to win a championship."
Other than a sore knee that kept him out of a game a month ago, O'Neal has been healthy and even strayed from the Suns' plan for him this season, playing in back-to-back games this week. He played 39 effective minutes at Memphis on Tuesday, a night after going 31 minutes at Oklahoma City.
He would have played both games regardless, with several off days before and after the games. O'Neal endorses the plan to rest him a game of most back-to-back sets, aiming to avoid long-term issues that kept him out of 86 games over the previous three years. He said his hip was not the problem last season.
"I kind of knew it wasn't my hip, because I was getting all these frickin' shots, and it still wasn't working," O'Neal said. "I was saying to myself, 'Either it's not my hip or my career is done.' When I met Nellie (Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson), he told me, 'Your hip's perfect. You got perfect hips. It's just your (butt) muscle ain't firing.' "
Like how the Suns athletic trainers' approach helped Grant Hill and Nash battle maladies and age, O'Neal is producing at an unexpected level with post-up mismatches in nearly every game.
"He's been unbelievable," Porter said. "The back-to-back was huge, especially with the way he played. He carried us in that (Memphis) game, like he carried us in the first game (at Oklahoma City)."
There is a fear that the Suns can rely too much on O'Neal and lose their offensive motion and fast break. Porter went away from O'Neal in Tuesday's third quarter to engage other players.
"In some ways, we have to go there," Nash said of O'Neal in the post. "We have an advantage. But also, there's not a lot more space to do anything else. That's what that lineup is built to do.
"You always want to be careful of being one-dimensional and predictable. At the same time, when Shaq's playing well, we can be deliberate."