Bottoms up for rejuventated Shaq

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

The butt end of some bad jokes when he first arrived in the desert, Shaquille O'Neal attributes his improved play of late to, get this, an improved butt.

As in Shaq Daddy's rather large posterior, the same buttocks the loquacious one uses to help carve space in the paint before he proceeds to abuse a hapless defender.

Entering last night's tip in Denver, the surging Suns had scored 100 or more points in seven successive games, going 6-1 during that stretch.

Entering last night, no team in the West was as hot as the Phoenix Suns, who are trying to learn new head coach Terry Porter's system on the fly.

One of the cogs behind the Suns' revival has been a rejuvenated O'Neal, who suddenly has resurfaced as a dominant player.

When he left South Beach for the Arizona desert in a package that jettisoned Shawn Marion to the Miami Heat, O'Neal was a non-factor on a Suns team that desperately coveted his low-post presence.

And when the Suns meekly exited from the post-season in five games at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs last spring, talk was that Shaq was toast.

Fast forward to today and the Diesel is the toast of the NBA as many clamour to have O'Neal included in next month's all-star game which, coincidentally, will be held in Phoenix.

Shaq, who turns 37 on March 6, makes his first and only visit to Toronto on Sunday as the Suns begin a gruelling six-game swing that involves stops in Boston and a reunion with former head coach Mike D'Antoni in New York.

O'Neal, who has been bothered by back spasms, entered last night averaging 22.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and shooting 59% from the field in his past six games.

More remarkably, he was making 74% of his free throws. During one stretch, the notoriously free-throw challenged Shaq converted 12 in a row.

Theories abound as to why Shaq has rediscovered his form, beginning with the notion that the team finally is buying into Porter's way of doing things.

During an interview with the Arizona Republic, the Big Aristotle enlightened the curious by shedding light on an ailment that plagued him last season.

"A muscle in my (rear) wasn't firing,'' O'Neal told the newspaper. "So they (media, fans and NBA executives) left me for dead. 'He's old. He doesn't have it anymore.'

"Now, I'm doing things I couldn't do last year because my (rear) wasn't firing."

For one thing, Shaq's signature drop step is back.

"I'm using a lot more (moves around the basket),'' O'Neal said. "My game is different. It's a mixture of everybody's game.

"When I was coming up, I was like: 'Okay, spin lob -- David Robinson. Get the knees up -- Rony Seikaly. Bow people in the face and look mean -- Patrick Ewing.' Then I just added a little of my own."

Add it all up and the one-time Desert Dud is now a stud.

And as long as O'Neal stays healthy, the Suns figure to be serious players in the West.

Five and three

Two of the biggest off-season moves involved Elton Brand returning east when he joined Philadelphia as a free agent, and Jermaine O'Neal's trade to Toronto from Indy.

Neither has made an impact and each has been sidelined.

Brand (shoulder) is expected back tonight when Philly plays host to San Antonio, while O'Neal (knee) gets back in the lineup in his return trip to Indy.

In O'Neal's absence, Andrea Bargnani has shown that he can start at centre and be effective.

In Brand's absence, the Sixers were playing the up-tempo game that vaulted the team into the playoffs last season.

The Sixers enter tonight riding a five-game win streak and have posted a winning record in Brand's absence.

Without Brand, a rebounding presence whose half-court game was viewed as the perfect complement to Philly's roster, the Sixers have been three-point happy.

Tony DiLeo, who replaced Maurice Cheeks earlier in the season, wants his team to make a minimum of five threes a game.

Four the record

For the first time in NBA history, four teams -- Cleveland, Boston, Orlando and the L.A. Lakers -- have recorded 30 wins before their 10th loss.

Clearly, the four have established themselves as the elite in the league, at least for now. The Cavs and the Celtics are ranked first and second, respectively, in allowing the fewest points. The Magic is fifth, while the Lakers are 16th, an area that must be cleaned up.


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