01-29-2009, 01:47 AM
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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The San Antonio Spurs have dealt the Phoenix Suns some tough losses in recent years, eliminating them from the playoffs three of the last four seasons.
The Suns hoped their acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal midway through last season would be the solution, and while it didn't work last spring, the rejuvenated star is playing some of his best basketball in years as the Suns and Spurs head into Thursday night's meeting in Phoenix.
San Antonio ousted Phoenix from the playoffs in the conference finals in 2005 and the conference semifinals in 2007.
The Suns traded for O'Neal at last season's deadline to help prevent another early exit from the postseason with a new commitment to defense. But the fast-paced team struggled to adjust to the 7-foot-1, 325-pounder's presence in the middle and won just once in their best-of-seven, first-round series against the Spurs.
O'Neal, though, appears to have settled into his current role with the Suns (25-18) under first-year coach Terry Porter. After averaging 12.9 points with the team last season, he's scoring 18.2 per game in 2008-09, including 22.1 over his last 18 games.
O'Neal had 29 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots while going 10-for-14 from the field in a 103-87 win over Washington on Monday night.
The Suns outscored the Wizards by 25 points when O'Neal was in the game to finish their road trip with back-to-back wins after dropping five of their previous six overall.
"I feel like I can play three or four more years," said O'Neal, who was whistled for a technical foul for hanging on the rim on a dunk in the first half.
"I've got a new medical staff that does stuff that I haven't really had before. I'm moving left, I'm moving right, I'm running, I'm jumping, I'm dunking, I'm getting up and hanging on the rim and getting techs, and I haven't felt this good in about two years."
That doesn't bode well for the Spurs (30-14), who have given up 19.0 points and 12.5 rebounds per game to O'Neal in the teams' first two meetings this season.
San Antonio fell at home to Phoenix 103-98 in its season opener Oct. 29 before taking a 91-90 road victory over the Suns on Roger Mason's buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Christmas.
The Southwest Division-leading Spurs have won five of their last six overall. Manu Ginobili scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and made all eight of his foul shots in the period to help San Antonio hold off Utah 106-100 on Tuesday night.
"Manu is an important part of us winning basketball games," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He was aggressive and got to go to the line."