Deal a desert dud

FRANK ZICARELLI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:28 PM ET

The Big Aristotle, the Big Cactus, the Big Bust. Life on the hardwood for the larger-than-life Shaquille O'Neal hasn't been kind since his move from South Beach to Phoenix.

A dud in the desert -- at least based on his six games with the suddenly sinking Suns -- criticism of O'Neal's trade for Shawn Marion grow louder with each Phoenix loss, each time Steve Nash ventures into the paint and bumps into Shaq's rear end.

While it's too early to pass judgment on O'Neal's presence, there's no denying the inherent problems Phoenix has encountered with the big man on its roster.

Maybe in time the Suns will adjust to their post presence, and maybe in time Shaq will adapt to Phoenix's up-tempo game, but time is running out, especially in a Western Conference where one bad week can prove catastrophic.

"It's probably an understatement to say we're struggling," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said in the wake of his team's 119-114 loss Saturday to the Philadelphia 76ers, not exactly an elite squad.

The loss was Phoenix's fifth in its past six games. It has fallen from the No. 1 seed in the West to the sixth slot with daunting road games in Portland and Denver up next, beginning tomorrow night.

Of greater concern is Phoenix's inability to defend its home court, losing back-to-back games there for the first time all season.

Even when they play to their strength, which is to push the ball after each made basket or turnover, the Suns are having a tough time, and were outscored 30-16 by the Sixers in fast-break opportunities.

More Shaq means more half-court ball for a Phoenix team that essentially wants to outscore its opponents.

"This has nothing to do with Shaq," D'Antoni insisted at a time when many believe otherwise. "It has something to do with urgency and playing with heart. The players have to get up in the morning, look at the standings and understand the urgency of the game."

Not even Shaq's unique brand of humour can put a positive spin on Phoenix's plight, a team trying to find a new identity in a conference dotted with hired guns.

Shaq was supposed to be that missing piece to get the Suns over the hump in the hopes of winning a championship. He was supposed to protect the paint, ignite a fast break, allow Amare Stoudemire to play at his more natural position -- power forward -- and make others around him better.

The experiment isn't working and many believe it won't because the change in style with Shaq is too dramatic.

"I'm only taking four or five shots a game," said Shaq Daddy, who averages almost as many turnovers each night.

"I'm just rebounding and trying to fit in. But right now we just have to stop people."

Defence has been an afterthought for the Suns under D'Antoni, but recently the team's ability to stop opponents has actually regressed.

Nash has never been a defensive stopper, but teams have attacked him at will, forcing turnovers and making him look rather ordinary.

In losses to New Orleans and Philly, Nash turned the ball over a combined 10 times. In his past five games, he has averaged 4.6 turnovers.

For a team that was within an eyelash of making last year's NBA final, the Suns are suddenly in peril of free-falling. The team's remaining schedule is loaded with Western foes.

"Right now, we're just struggling," Nash said.

Teams no longer fear Phoenix's pick and roll because now it's Shaq and not Stoudemire setting the screen on most half-court sets. When he isn't getting into foul trouble, Shaq is turning the ball over -- a stunning 19 times in six games. To pin all the blame on Shaq's shoulders would be foolish, but something is clearly amiss in the Valley of the Suns.

Trading away the Matrix and taking on Shaq's huge contract means the Suns will do whatever it takes to ensure the O'Neal experiment works.

Based strictly on the short-term impact, it hasn't.

No way, Jose

Word around the NBA is both Portland and Atlanta made overtures for Raptors point guard Jose Calderon at the trade deadline.

While he hasn't been as efficient in recent games, Calderon is highly regarded because of his team-first, pass-first mentality.

The Hawks were said to be peddling swingman Josh Childress for Calderon, a restricted free agent this off-season. It's not known what Portland was offering.


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