When his two-time MVP left the game with back spasms, Phoenix Suns coach Terry Porter ran his offense through another former MVP nearly twice the point guard’s size: Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal moved into ninth place on the NBA’s career scoring list with 28 points and 12 rebounds, and the Suns overcame the loss of Steve Nash to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 110-102 on Monday night.
Nash played only 9 minutes before his back spasms struck and Amare Stoudemire was hounded by foul trouble, but the Suns still had plenty of firepower to overwhelm the NBA-worst Thunder.
“When Nash went down and then Amare got in trouble, Shaq became really our point guard and our scorer at times,” Porter said. “We just threw it in to him and then just played off of him.”
O’Neal had an easy time against the Thunder’s undermanned front line, which is still hoping to add former New Jersey Nets 7-footer Nenad Krstic. Krstic signed an offer sheet last week with the Thunder, and time was running out for the Nets to match it Monday night.
In the meantime, O’Neal went 10-for-12 and passed Dominique Wilkins for ninth place on the league’s career scoring list. It was his fourth-highest scoring output of the season and his 10th double-double.
“I’ve been telling them all year: `When they get it to me and let me do what I do, I can still put up those numbers.’ Just because I’m 35, sometimes they think that he’s old, he can’t do it,” O’Neal said. “Guys were looking for me, and I was just doing what I do.”
Jason Richardson scored 20 points and reserve Matt Barnes had 19 for Phoenix, which snapped a four-game road losing streak. Phoenix held Oklahoma City scoreless for the first 5 minutes of the fourth quarter and forced eight of the Thunder’s 15 turnovers in the final period to put away the game.
Nash wasn’t sure after the game whether his back would be feeling good enough for him to play Tuesday night at Memphis, but he expected to be back for a Jan. 2 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Rookie Russell Westbrook scored a career-high 31 and Jeff Green 22 to lead Oklahoma City, which fizzled after a hot start.
“We gave ourselves a chance going into the fourth quarter, but we didn’t do a good job of taking care of the basketball,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s something that we will continue to talk about and work on.”
The Suns dug themselves a double-digit hole, just like they did in their last visit to Oklahoma City, and this time Nash wasn’t around to bail them out. Instead it was a pair of players who weren’t on the floor for that trip: O’Neal, who was resting, and Richardson, who hadn’t yet joined the team through a trade.
Stoudemire had his streak of 11 straight games of at least 20 points snapped. He played only 7 minutes in the second half and fouled out in the fourth quarter with 14 points. Grant Hill added 11 points and Leandro Barbosa, who replaced Nash, had 10 points and a career-high six steals.
But the Thunder, who were without Joe Smith (sore right leg) and had Nick Collison limited by a broken left thumb, had no answer for Shaq.
“He was starting the break, bringing it up a little bit, getting the ball up,” Richardson said. “He was making some great passes. He had a good game for us.”
O’Neal believes the Suns should lean on him more often, even if Nash and Stoudemire are in the mix.
“I’ve been doing that my whole career and I think that’s how this team should play, especially the way I’m shooting free throws now. It should be an inside-outside game,” said O’Neal, who went 8-for-12 on free throws.
“I’ve been in the league 15 years and I’ve been in (the finals) six times, and that’s the way you get there. I think once we do that and develop some consistency and stop turning the ball over, then we’ll be all right.”
Kevin Durant scored 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting, cooling off after making his first two shots as the Thunder started out 6-for-6 to build a quick nine-point lead.
It was 23-13 after Westbrook hit his third 3-pointer, matching his career high in only 6 minutes. Westbrook started out by connecting on his first six shots for 15 points.
Phoenix came right back and took its first lead on Barbosa’s layup to start the second quarter and took the lead for good with a 14-2 run that put them up 60-55 at halftime