by Earl K. Sneed

Still suffering from a bad taste in their mouths after a last second loss to San Antonio on Christmas Day, the Phoenix Suns thought they were coming to Oklahoma City to find a cure for their ailment.

Instead their former two-time MVP Steve Nash went down with back spasms and Amar’e Stoudemire found himself in foul trouble all night. Leave it to Superman to come to the rescue, though.

Shaquille O’Neal put the Suns on his back (with a little help from Jason Richardson and Matt Barnes), as Shaq moved past Dominique Wilkins for ninth on the all-time scoring list.

SLAM caught up with The Diesel, STAT and Nash after a hard fought win against the worst team in the League.

First quarter

— Russell Westbrook comes ready to play from the opening tip. Westbrook is not known as a 3-point shooter, but he starts 3-3 from behind the arch to push the Thunder to an early advantage 23-13.

— Shaq looks like he enjoyed the time off after Christmas—he has that bounce in his step.

— Shaq and JRich are carrying the Suns early, bringing the Suns back to within 5 (20-25).

— Rookie Kyle Weaver is getting a little burn for the Thunder, and his block leads to a transition dunk for Kevin Durant. The OKC capacity crowd actually has life tonight.

— Matt Barnes nails a 3 to tie it at 34-34 to end the quarter.

Amar'e's look says it all.Second quarter

— Westbrook had 15 in the first, but it’s Earl Watson who takes over the second period. First he finds Chris “Weezy” Wilcox for an alley. The next time down, Westbrook drops a clean behind-the-back feed to Jeff Green for the slam, and the Thunder are up 39-36.

— Watson comes back later in the period and leaves it behind his head for the trailer, Robert Swift, to finish with a dunk.

— Weaver knocks down a 3 and the Thunder are creating a little separation, up 47-40.

— Barnes throws an alley to Grant Hill, as if it was 10 years ago. Hill probably would have thrown it down back then, but a layup counts just the same.

— Barnes comes alive at the end of the quarter. His three gives the Suns the lead and they take a 60-55 advantage into the break.

— Steve Nash didn’t play at all in the second, and he won’t return after playing just over 9 minutes before suffering back spasms. He’s not even laying down on the baseline icing his back like usual, so it must be serious.

Halftime

— A discussion breaks out between me and media members over what would be worse: Being the Detroit Lions and going 0-16, or being the Oklahoma City Thunder and being on pace to have the worst record in NBA history? (I’ll let you think about that.)

Third quarter

— STAT picks up his fourth foul just 38 seconds into the third period. He can’t seem to do anything right tonight.

'I call this The Splits'— The Suns start to create some space between themselves and the Thunder, and then JRich shows that he could still be a Slam Dunk Champion if he wanted to, pulling out a sick 360 dunk out of his arsenal on a breakaway after the outlet pass from Shaq.

— Westbrook tries to keep the Thunder in it, but Shaq, JRich and Barnes are just too much for the Thunder to handle.

Forth quarter

— With Nash out with back spasms, we have a Dee Brown sighting!

— Even Jared Dudley gets into the act. This is turning into laugher after being a very competitive game for the better part of three quarters.

— Grant Hill’s three makes it 104-89 for the Suns, and everybody begins to check out with 5 minutes left in the fourth.

— The Suns finish off the Thunder 110-102, after a meaningless run by the Thunder late. The more important thing is the condition of Steve Nash’s back.

Postgame

SLAM: Steve, what’s the deal on your back injury?
Steve Nash: I’ve just got back spasms. It actually started to hit me between plays. I noticed it was strange, and sometimes you can warm up and it goes away, but it got progressively worse.

You know, I have a bad back. Luckily, with education, training and our staff, it’s under control. Once every year, maybe, or once every two years I get back spasms and it kind of creped up on me. But we caught it early enough that I might not have been damaged or have to sit out for an extended period.

SLAM: How long do you think you’ll be out for?
SN: I have no idea. I’m definitely questionable for tomorrow, but it shouldn’t be something that keeps me out past the New Year.

SLAM: You looked like vintage Shaq tonight, with 28 points and 12 boards. Did you just feel good tonight?
Shaquille O’Neal: I’ve been telling them all year, when they give it to me and let me do what I do, I can still put up those numbers. But, I guess because I’m 35 sometimes they think he’s old, he can’t do it. You know, guys were looking for me, and I was just doing what I do and taking high percentage shots, and trying to keep my shooters involved.

SLAM: Coach Porter said when Nash went down, you became the point guard and the scorer.
SO: I’ve been doing that my whole career, and I think that’s how this team should play. Especially the way I’ve been shooting my free throws now, you know, it should be an inside/outside game. I’ve been in the League 15 years, and I’ve been (to the Finals) six times and that’s the way you get there. So, I think once we do that and develop some consistency and stop turning the ball over, we’ll be alright.

SLAM: How big is it for this team to have guys like JRich and Matt Barnes that you can go to when guys go down?
SO: You know, they’re good. We just have to find ways to use them out there. That’s why every time I get the ball I’m always looking for those guys first.

SLAM: With the back-to-back, did you come in with a certain amount of minutes that you wanted to play to stay rested for the Grizzlies Tuesday night?
SO: No, we had a couple of days off after Christmas, and I played tonight and I’ll probably play tomorrow too, because we have a couple of days off after that. I’ll probably just play and do what I do, and hopefully we can get a win and gain some ground.

SLAM: Did you even know that you passed Dominique Wilkins for ninth on the all-time scoring list?
SO: I never really pay attention to it. I just say to myself that when I’m done playing, I’ll take a look at it, and hopefully I’ll be in the Top 5 in most or all categories. But I don’t really pay attention to it. I just know that, after missing those 5,000 free throws, I should probably be at no. 3 right now.

SLAM: STAT, you got in foul trouble early, and then Nash goes down. Shaq, JRich and Barnes really stepped up tonight.
Amar’e Stoudemire: Great team effort tonight. You know, like you said, Nash goes down and I got in foul trouble tonight. So, Shaq played well. We went to him a lot offensively and he executed. That allowed us to keep our momentum and get the win.

SLAM: How valuable is it for this team to have guys stepping up that aren’t a part of the Big 3?
AS: Big. That’s huge for us. JRich got a couple of isolations, and Matt Barnes hit a couple of threes. That helps, so both guys contributed and played well for us, and that’s what we need.

SLAM: Terry Porter has been preaching defense all season, and Shaq talked about how you guys can’t let guys like Russell Westbrook get 15 in the first quarter. What’s it going to take to get this team to be where you guys want to be defensively?
AS: It’s just a matter of watching film, and studying the game and (opposing team’s) programs. We just have to know our personnel, and attack it that way.

SLAM: You came out and said that you want to be one of those guys mentioned when people talk about the Top 5 players in the League. What do you have to do personally to get your game on that level?
AS: Well, it’s going to happen, so my thing is just continue to play hard. If I keep playing hard, and the good Lord keeps me healthy, I’ll be alright. If you’re just trying to improve as a player, then you’ll get there.

SLAM: Does this team still have the Christmas Day loss to San Antonio in your heads?
AS: That’s gone. That’s gone. A game-winning shot like that, that’s just something that we learned from that night and moved right pass it.