by February 26, 2008

By Sam Rubenstein

Beginning with a disclaimer, not the strongest move in the world but it has to be said: Waaaaaaaaay too early to judge Shaq on the Suns.

That being said, I believe in the statement game. On Sunday, Phoenix had the free TV national spotlight in a home game against the Pistons, who might be the best team in the NBA right now. Shaq has had a few games to get comfortable already, not enough of a body of work to judge in great depth, but we’ve seen him look rusty and slow trying to run with Lakers, and then grab 14 boards in a slower game against the Celtics. Detroit presented an opportunity to see a little bit of each.

As luck would have it, I tuned into the game right around the key sequence, so I saw the meaningful Shaq development in context. The Suns came out flat for their statement game at home, which is a problem or learning experience for the playoffs depending on how optimistic you are. Still, the Suns made their run, and it was keyed mostly by Amare. He sparked the team with a dunk on Jason Maxiell, hit a few jumpers, and the tide had turned.

Suddenly Amare cooled off, wasn’t getting bail out calls, and the Pistons began to re-expand the gap. You could feel the game getting away from the Suns right there. It’s one of those NBA standards you see all the time, a team expends energy to climb out of a big hole, but they don’t get all the way out, and the other team then responds with a surge and soon the game is out of reach.

The Pistons began to score at will, the Suns couldn’t hit a shot, and that’s when Shaq decided to send a message, by way of bludgeoning little Amir Johnson.

Was that Shaq’s way of saying “No layups against my team?” Was it a message to the rest of the NBA that Phoenix has a real bully, a Hall of Famer that will abuse the vulnerable? A message to his new teammates about what they need to become if they want to be champions? I have a lot of respect for Shaq’s intelligence as an NBA player, not just the strategy and game situations, but the social and psychological part of the game. At this point in his career, I don’t see him as being someone that would get swept up in the emotion or frustration of the game. That was a calculated flagrant, in the same way a coach might pick up a tech to fire up his team.

Unfortunately, it fired up the wrong team, and the Pistons broke the game wide open.

Where does this leave us with Shaq’s new role? In his domination days, the only real opposite threat on the low block he’s ever played with was the one year with an old but effective Karl Malone and Udonis Haslem at times. But Shaq has never been the goon to enforce the law of the game for anyone but himself. He made a speech once about how you have to “feed the guard dog”, insinuating that his presence as an intimidator kept other teams’ goons away from giving hard fouls to Kobe. But really, Shaq was more about putting fear into the guys that had to battle him in the post, or the double-teamer that would have to leave his man open.

That hard foul on Amir Johnson was symbolic of the new Shaq. He says it’s not all about him in Phoenix, and even though this put the focus squarely on him in the “Was it a flagrant 2?” discussion, I felt that it was a national TV warning to the Suns future opponents, that they will make the game ugly and they will get their hands bloody if they have to. Developing…

They might want to not lose by 30 on national TV in the process though.