By Ian Thomsen
March 28, 2008

Also in this column:NBA scouts weigh in on MVP raceStrategy to resuscitate the Knicks

5. By feeling younger. Many believed that O'Neal was washed up this season in Miami, that he had nothing more to give. So how is it that he is suddenly averaging slightly more minutes (29.2) and more rebounds (10.3) and shooting better (61.3 percent) while looking far sprier in 18 games with Phoenix than he did through 33 with the Heat?

All answers, I am told, point to O'Neal's rear end. His derriere wasn't what it used to be.

"His butt muscles, that was the biggest thing,'' Suns athletic trainer Aaron Nelson said. "He knew that. We do manual muscle testing to show if a muscle is weak or strong, and it was pretty much nothing there.''

Shaq's base, Nelson said, affects "everything that he does, from being able to run straight ahead, to go side-to-side, to pivoting, stuff that he does normally. Rebounding and coming down, he's got to be able to stabilize. That muscle is a very important muscle, and if that's weak then you've got a lot of other compensations.''

Shaq credits the Suns' training staff with extending his career. It employs a system called Optimum Performance Training, based on a scientific understanding of how different parts of the body help or hinder each other.

"A lot of these teams have got the old trainers, who I consider 'analog trainers,' and they just go with the stim [electric stimulation] and the sound [ultrasound],'' O'Neal said. "But that don't really work no more. Your body is like a building, and if certain things are off [in the foundation] then the whole thing's going to be off.

"I had pulled a hip muscle, and when you pull one muscle, the other muscles start to overwork. So with me pulling this muscle, all these muscles shut down, and then my ass muscles were starting to work. And that's where all the pain was coming from.''

O'Neal is bitter that the Heat didn't diagnose the relationships between his muscle groups.

"They didn't see that,'' he said. "That's the stuff that you can't see in the MRI. So they would take MRIs and they wouldn't see anything. Because of what was going on, they would make excuses -- 'Oh, he's getting divorced, his career's over, he don't want to play ... he's faking.'

"I had a freaking pain right here,'' O'Neal said, grabbing below his right hip. "I'm sort of old school myself, so I'll suck it up a few days. But then if it all hurts, give me a shot. And then usually when the shot don't work, something else is wrong. But we were taking MRIs and nothing else was wrong. I went to a so-called expert in California and he didn't know what was wrong.''

The Heat said they would not comment on O'Neal's claims here. Earlier this week, Heat president and coach Pat Riley said O'Neal was wrong to complain about the care he received from Miami's medical and athletic training staff.

"It's really a shame that he would insult those people like that because they gave him care. They cared," Riley said. "They didn't kiss his butt. They cared about him. He can do whatever he wants to do to me. That's OK, I don't care. But those men, they tried. ... That upsets me more than anything.''

Nelson did not comment on the care Shaq received in Miami. He simply answered questions about the treatment O'Neal was receiving with the Suns.

"We figured out what muscles were tight, what muscles were weak, and we just corrected those imbalances,'' Harris said. "He had a lot of general tightness everywhere, but mainly the hip and ankle.''

O'Neal showed improvement in the first days of treatment.

"Originally, we were doing a couple of hours a day [of therapy and exercises],'' Harris said. "He even came back from the All-Star break early to get some extra work in before we got into that week of practice, which was the week that he ended up playing [in his Suns debut]. He put a lot of time in early, and now we manage it anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half a day of a combination of the manual therapy and the corrective exercises.''

Nelson said O'Neal weighed 321 pounds at the time of the trade, and he has maintained a healthy range of 324-327. The issue -- ironically for the league's strongest player -- was the strength of small muscle groups that are easy to ignore.

"He had some deficits that are common for a lot of our guys,'' Nelson said. "But for a guy that big and that strong, he definitely had some issues we needed to address.''

The Suns believe that O'Neal can be productive through the final year of his contract in 2009-10.

"I've been here a month, I haven't had to take no drugs, I haven't had to get no shots,'' O'Neal said. "They touch me, they stretch me and I do real simple weights.''

4. By practicing less. The Suns are renowned throughout the league for limiting their time on the practice court. Grant Hill said O'Neal tried to recruit him to the Heat before Hill signed with Phoenix as a free agent last summer.

"I asked him, 'How are the practices? Are the practices long?' " Hill recalled. "He said, 'You know, boy, I can't lie to you.' I said, 'OK, thanks.' ''

One of the difficulties of acquiring O'Neal on Feb. 6 was that coach Mike D'Antoni didn't dare try to work him into the lineup with long practices. O'Neal is 36, Hill is 35 and Steve Nash is 34.

"When you have a veteran team, you don't need to practice so hard,'' Hill said. "We've seen it all, we've done it all. The poor rookies, they probably miss out because they need to practice.''

It's Tuesday in Boston, and the Suns have just finished a short practice after losing in overtime at Detroit the night before.

"In Orlando last year -- and this wasn't a problem, I'm not being critical of Brian Hill [who coached the Magic last season] -- we would have come in and practiced hard today. Even after a tough game last night," Hill said. "When you've got a young team [as the Magic had last season], that's good. But when you're older, it's hard during the grind of the season. Mike has a good read on his guys, and just understanding the big picture, understanding I need you for game time. Like today, he put in a new set and we didn't have to go against competition [in practice]. A lot of stuff we put in for Shaq, we don't even practice it. Our practices have been the games. That's why it took us a little while to figure it out.''

They're still figuring it out, as proved by the losses to Detroit (which didn't have Rip Hamilton) and the Celtics (who outscored Phoenix 60-40 in the second half Wednesday).

"We practiced harder at the start of the season, and we practiced hard -- not long -- in training camp and the preseason,'' Hill said. "Now you throw Shaq in after the All-Star break, you can't have two-hour practices. A lot of this stuff has been on the fly. But we're starting to pick it up.''

3. By playing to both styles. The Suns have another month to prove they can be exceptional whether they go tall with Shaq or small by shifting Amaré Stoudemire to center. After a disturbing 3-6 start with O'Neal, the Suns have gone 7-2 while averaging 113.4 points and holding opponents to 43.7 percent shooting in that time. Stoudemire is averaging 10.7 free-throw attempts since the trade, a 34 percent increase.

"We have a lot of versatility and options now,'' Nash said. "We shouldn't have as many matchup problems, and we should be able to guard the basket and defensive-rebound better than we used to -- and at the same time we should be able to push the ball on the break and get fast-break points.''

The bottom line is that this trade can't be assessed until the playoffs, because the Suns will need the remaining weeks to pull things together, and also because Shaq's half-court influence will be most important in series against the Spurs and Lakers.

2. By relaxing. When the locker-room door opened shortly after the Suns' dreadful 117-97 loss at Boston, Stoudemire and Hill were sitting depressed in the corner with their feet in buckets of ice. O'Neal was on the other side of the room, making jokes with his security coordinator, Jerome Crawford.

"Did you ever see a three-piece suit made out of blue jeans?'' he asked, and it was true: Shaq's designer suit was made of fine denim.

The point is that the Suns don't know how to win a championship because they've never done it.

"They were kind of too serious at times, and I bring in a silly, loose attitude,'' O'Neal said. "When you're not a champion, you always hear of what you have to do, certain things you have to be, but you never really know. My style has always worked for me and I've been there [to the NBA Finals] six times. So I've got to go with my style.''

"It's just about belief,'' Nash said. "If you have someone who's been there before, it adds to your belief. Not that we didn't have belief before, but the more you add to your belief, the stronger you are.

"He's won championships, and we've never won. So we really want to push him to get one more for himself and our first to show us how it's done.''

1. By winning at the end. Don't forget the last time O'Neal won the championship: His Heat went 7-9 over the final month of the 2005-06 regular season amid continuing doubts about their preseason trade for Antoine Walker.

"You never know you won it until you won it,'' Shaq said, referring back to how a last-second three-pointer by Robert Horry helped the Lakers beat Sacramento in the Western Conference finals on their way to the championship in 2001-02. "If you do everything right and plus you get a little bit of luck, then you'll win.''

4. If the Nuggets don't make the playoffs (or bow out meekly in the first round), what do you anticipate happening in Denver in the offseason? Are they a team that could have wholesale changes?--Gary Andrews, New York

Absolutely. The Nuggets have the third-highest payroll in the league. Owner Stan Kroenke isn't going to pay $82.7 million -- plus a big luxury-tax bill -- for a team that hasn't reached the second round since 1993-94 (when it upset George Karl's top-seeded Sonics). That's why I thought the Nuggets should have traded for Ron Artest last month as a short-term boost who might push them deep into the playoffs. Because they'll probably have to blow up the team otherwise.

3. You wrote, "But it wouldn't be a week in winter if I didn't get a desperate letter from Canada complaining about the lack of respect for the Raptors." Well, before the season you DID pick the Knicks sixth overall in the East, didn't you? What do you expect from up north? Our usual fun-loving, laid-back, too-much-respect-for-sportswriters attitude?-- Gareth, Toronto

When I picked the Knicks to finish sixth, it was like I did it in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier in front of a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner. The other day, I was telling my friend Mark Linehan how I think the Toronto Blue Jays will make the playoffs and he said, "Who are they going to play in the World Series? The Knicks?''

Gareth of Toronto should notice by all of the disagreeable letters I post that I don't expect "too much respect,'' or not even a little bit.

2. I was just looking for your opinion on a debate I've been having with a bunch of co-workers. In a three-on-three game, all players in their prime, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain vs. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Who do you think would win?-- Jim, Milwaukee

Jordan's team is loaded with scoring, while Russell is the only terrific defender on his team. So you would have to like Jordan's team. But what no one knows is that Magic, Larry and Russell spent two months practicing in secret just to get ready for this game. Then they all showed up to find that the referee was Tim Donaghy. So they called the whole thing off before it could happen.

1. According to your story, "Walsh is the gold standard for team executives." Are you insane? His track record with the Pacers over just the last five years, never mind the conduct of their players, would seem to fly in the face of your statement. Please defend your poorly thought-out writing.-- Jeff Thompson, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

First of all, if my writing were "poorly thought out,'' then how am I supposed to defend it?

It isn't poorly thought out to note that Walsh built the Pacers into an experienced 1999-2000 NBA finalist, then instantly renewed the team by trading Dale Davis for Jermaine O'Neal. Within four years, Indiana was winning 61 games to push the champion Pistons to six games in the conference finals. The young Pacers appeared to be contender for years to come before Ron Artest incited the 2004 brawl that destroyed their title hopes; then injuries undid the rest of it.

Now I'm going to hear from angry people complaining that Walsh shouldn't have built the team around Artest. My answer is that the team wasn't built around Artest. I'm looking at the Pacers' salaries in 2005-06, the year after the brawl, and Artest was the team's fourth-highest-paid player at a relatively cheap $6.8 million. Walsh stole Artest in a 2002 trade that landed future All-Star Brad Miller as well as Ron Mercer and Kevin Ollie while sending Jalen Rose, Travis Best and Norman Richardson to Chicago.

NBA teams are fragile, and they collapse -- look at Chicago and Miami this year. The great thing the Lakers had going with Kobe and Shaq fell into ruin. There isn't a GM in the modern game who hasn't gone through hard times. Geoff Petrie is losing now in Sacramento. Look at Pat Riley. Jerry West lost last year. The exceptions have been Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Joe Dumars in Detroit, but if they stick around long enough (though Popovich won't; he'll probably be out the door after Tim Duncan leaves), then they'll also face difficult times. This is an unstable league filled with volatile stars, and no one predicts it right all of the time. And that's what I like about the NBA.

I reached out to three NBA advance scouts for their MVP picks and -- no surprise -- they couldn't agree on anything. They are listed here in no particular order.

3. Chris Paul: "I don't think that team can do anything without him. He dominates the ball in a good way; he sets them up in a way that makes everybody on his team better. There's nobody on that team who can create his own scoring opportunities, because that's the way they were built. Tyson Chandler can't score unless he's dunking the ball. Peja Stojakovic has to catch and be spotted up to score; Mo [Peterson] is the same way. David West is the closest to being able to create a little bit of scoring, but not very often.

"Defensively, Paul can change the game when he puts pressure on the ball, and he's strong enough that he doesn't get posted up very often. He doesn't have a lot of deficiencies, though there are times when he doesn't play the best defense.

"Kobe's great, but you take Kobe off the Lakers and they could still win 20 games. I don't think New Orleans could win 20 without Paul. Then with Paul, I look at the other stuff -- the hassle of having the All-Star Game in New Orleans, and how he made the Hornets exciting to watch so that the people who do have money are coming out now to watch them play.''

2. Kevin Garnett: "I'm torn between him and Kobe Bryant. Kobe's had a hell of a year, but Garnett gets the edge because he went to a new team that really was poor last year. And he changed them, at both ends. I'm going with him not so much for his numbers that he's put up, but because he instills his will upon the rest of their roster and they've got to keep up with him. KG inspires the others more than he just outscores everybody.''

1. Kobe Bryant: "I'm picking him for what he means to his team, and I think he's the best player in the league too. If you were to put him in line with all of the other candidates, most people would pick him first to be on their team with everything that he brings. With the drive that he has, he won't allow anything but the top effort from his teammates. He sets the tone and he's not going to slack off, he's going to do whatever it takes to win, and you can see the dedication that the guy has. The numbers are there, and even before the trade [for Pau Gasol] he was willing them to win games that they probably shouldn't have won. When he needs to he'll turn it up on defense, and he understands the certain times of the game when he needs to really turn up his effort.

"As a playmaker, he has the experience and the recognition of what's going on, what defenses are doing to him. And he has the patience. Before, he would get more frustrated with his teammates, and there was a negative vibe going on -- he didn't truly trust his teammates and they were unsure themselves where they stood with him. It's like he's drawing everybody in now. He still has his moments of competitive outrage, but his intentions seem to be just to win. That's part of being a leader. He's not afraid to be disliked, but he is respected.''

There isn't a team in the league that couldn't make the playoffs within two years. Here's how incoming personnel boss Walsh could return the Knicks to the postseason.

2. Make three decisions on the court.

• Pray for the Nos. 1 or 2 pick and use it to draft Memphis' Derrick Rose, who will provide electrifying and unselfish promise at point guard around which the team can grow.

• Unload Eddy Curry or Zach Randolph, and then feature the survivor up front along with David Lee and Malik Rose until an athletic shot-blocker can be found to fill out the frontcourt rotation.

• Bring back Stephon Marbury. He'll almost surely be playing for a new coach in the last year of his deal, which will ensure his best effort in pursuit of a new contract elsewhere. If the Knicks get Derrick Rose, they'll want to bring him off the bench anyway. By allowing Marbury's contract to expire, the Knicks -- in conjunction with a few other moves -- can be under the luxury tax in 2009, which will help create a new culture of accountability in which the organization will reward players based on performance.

1. Say goodbye to Isiah Thomas. It is in the best interests of everybody, especially owner James Dolan. I started the talk March 18 that Thomas could remain with the organization in association with his friend and mentor Walsh. Then earlier this week I was told by a league insider it appeared instead that Thomas would be receiving a healthy severance to leave the Knicks.

So long as the quality of his contract buyout isn't an issue, then Thomas needs to leave New York and get on with his life. There is nothing more he can do on behalf of the Knicks or his own legacy in New York, which Walsh will undoubtedly try to salvage by praising Thomas whenever possible.

Even if Walsh believes Thomas could help the Knicks in personnel matters and especially in the draft, I can't see that Thomas would want to subject himself or the Knicks to the continued abuse. I believe he wants Walsh and Dolan to succeed in New York. Thomas has to know that if he remains with the franchise in any capacity, then there will be endless speculation and gossip of divisions between him and the new regime.

I'm guessing the Knicks will say they have hired Walsh because he has a lot in common with Thomas. I've wondered how the Knicks decided on Walsh, because someone as secretive as Dolan probably isn't going to ask for a lot of outside opinions. The only conclusion I can reach is that Thomas incidentally talked Dolan into replacing him with Walsh. During his private conversations with Dolan over the last five years, I bet Thomas frequently referred back to his years with Walsh with the Pacers and all of the lessons he learned from Walsh. Doesn't that make sense? Dolan obviously respects Thomas' opinion, and so I'm sure that Thomas indirectly played a role in the decision to hire Walsh.

Here's a stat I would like to see: When the home team begs the crowd to scream during a single possession by posting video of a phony "noise meter'' on the scoreboard (which, you may have noticed, happens to go up whether the crowd gets louder or not), I would bet that the idea backfires more often than not. My own feeling is that visitors shoot an altogether higher percentage than normal during that single possession because the noise forces them to focus. They take pride in shutting up the enemy, and the home team invariably rewards the visitors' ambitions by going silent the instant the ball goes through the basket. Every time this happens, it strikes me as one of the dumbest innovations in the marketing of the modern game.

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