Shaq Returns to Phoenix in Limited Role With Cavaliers
PHOENIX -- Shaquille O'Neal made his first appearance in Phoenix on Monday since being dealt to the Cavaliers last summer, a move that ended his season-and-a-half tenure with the Suns. Depending on where you were sitting, the fan reaction was mostly positive when O'Neal was introduced to the Phoenix faithful -- but the same can't be said for the level of production he's brought to the Cavs so far this season.
In his team's win over the Suns, Shaq managed to play just 19 minutes, contributing an extremely modest stat line of three points and five rebounds, as well as three fouls and four turnovers. It's not exactly what we're used to seeing from the man who, even with the Suns, could occasionally be the centerpiece of the offense while dominating the proceedings, at least on the offensive end of the floor.
But while Shaq may not be the force he once was overall, he can still play. And Cavs' head coach Mike Brown had nothing but positive things to say about O'Neal's contributions to his new team, despite the fact that, to this point, they might be a little more minor than expected.
"[Shaq's] given us an inside presence on both ends of the floor," Brown said. "I don't know if we're number one, but we're one of the top 5 teams in paint points allowed, which is good. A lot of that has to do with the big fella down there.
"And then offensively, we score a lot of points in the paint," Brown continued. "Prior to his arrival, a lot of it had to do with LeBron driving the basketball and dropping a pass here or there, or finishing himself. Because [Zydrunas Ilgauskus] is more of a finesse post up guy where he'll shoot the jumper, or a turn around jumper, or every once in a while, a hook shot.
"Shaq has allowed us to have a power game offensively too. Terrific passer, so we can go inside and out, and he's got four championship rings so the stuff that he does, the stuff that he says, we all can continue to learn something from him."
Shaq can be a terrific passer, and he can be a power player. But he doesn't seem to get enough touches in his limited minutes to impact the game on the offensive end. Brown said that's by design, and basically admitted that his goal is to get through the regular season with a healthy Shaq who can contribute to a run in the playoffs.
"One thing I need to make sure I don't do is that I don't overplay him too many minutes," Brown said. "Ideally if I keep him right around 22, 24 minutes per night then I think I'm doing my job. Even if it sometimes means sacrificing some points here or there for our opponents or for us, it's the goal to make sure he's healthy and ready to go at the end of the season.
"There may be times when he plays more than that; there may be times during the playoffs when he plays more than that. But my goal right now is to grow and learn with him, but not to overuse him during the regular season."
There was no danger of that on Monday night in Phoenix, as O'Neal subbed out with just under four and a half minutes left in the third quarter in a five-point game and didn't return the rest of the night.
O'Neal, though, isn't the same brash superstar who wouldn't have been able to stand not being involved in his team's success in previous seasons. He seems to be on the same page with his coach and is fine with his limited action -- as long as the wins continue to come.
"Coach is doing a great job of limiting my minutes this year," O'Neal said. "You know, it's all about winning. Of course if we're not winning games, I would love to be out there. But this formula now with me playing limited minutes, it's working. I'm 38, I'm up there in the age bracket, and it's all about winning."
As far as the slightly-above-lukewarm reception O'Neal received from the crowd in his return to Phoenix, it's not something that he's all that concerned with.
"You know what? I've been a member of five, six, seven different franchises, and you have to realize, nothing bothers me," O'Neal said. "When I'm done playing, my name will be remembered. So it doesn't matter if they cheer or boo -- that don't hurt my feelings. Because I'm going out tonight, by myself, and the ones that boo, if they see me, it'll be a different tone then.
"But I'm not worried about that, I'm focused on something bigger."
That "something bigger" that Shaq is referring to is the opportunity to play for a fifth career championship ring with LeBron James and this Cavaliers team later this season. And if Cleveland can continue to win all year with O'Neal playing limited minutes, it's not a stretch to envision him becoming more involved with what this team does offensively -- especially once things slow down and games become a physical, half-court battle, as they often do in the NBA's postseason.