The same O'Neal, a little different

Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX -- Shaq is back.

Back in the West. Back on the court. Back as a starting center.

And back on the attack against the Lakers.

Just like old times. But with a slightly different twist.

Two weeks after being traded to the Phoenix Suns from the Miami Heat for forward Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks, Shaquille O'Neal on Tuesday said he was sufficiently recovered from a hip injury and sufficiently schooled in his new team's system and plans to make his Suns debut tonight at US Airways Center.

O'Neal will return against the Lakers, the team he and Kobe Bryant led to three straight NBA titles. So, naturally, at practice Tuesday, O'Neal couldn't resist taking a shot at the purple and gold.

Was he aiming at Bryant, his old nemesis and a favorite target in the past?

"He's playing fabulous," said O'Neal. "He is the best player in the league. He's a tough guy to guard."

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who loves to needle O'Neal?

"He's a jokester," said O'Neal.

So which Lakers figures are now the objects of O'Neal's seemingly perennial wrath? Former centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

"I've probably only spoken two times to Mr. Kareem and once to Mr. Chamberlain," said O'Neal, comparing them to former centers Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon, who, according to O'Neal, continue to befriend him. "Coming in there, playing under [Abdul-Jabbar preceded by Chamberlain], I wanted at least to be on the same page. . . . It was vital that I make a name for myself in that organization. Why they don't talk to me, I don't know. I don't have any hard feelings for them."

Chamberlain died in 1999.

Abdul-Jabbar, the league's all-time leading scorer and a special assistant coach for the Lakers, seemed surprised Tuesday when told of O'Neal's comments.

"I've had nothing but respect for him the whole time I've known him," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I'm surprised he took some sort of offense. I remember he was out there one game and he made a hook shot and he pointed to me in the crowd. I think he's the best center of his generation."

Of greater concern to the Lakers than O'Neal's words will be his deeds. With only the Suns ahead of them in the Pacific Division, the Lakers must hope the addition of O'Neal will not widen the gap.

It's fair to speculate the opposite might be true. O'Neal, who turns 36 next month, is far from the form that enabled him to be the center on four championship teams, a league MVP and a three-time NBA Finals MVP. O'Neal's conditioning, a question even in the best of times, has been slowed by a hip injury suffered Dec. 22.

"I'm not 100%, but I'm close enough," he said Tuesday.

Even at full speed, can O'Neal blend smoothly with a Suns team that has, arguably, the best fastbreak offense in the league? Will the man, who likes to refer to himself as the Diesel, clear the lanes for his new teammates or merely clog them up?

"A lot of people think I can't run," O'Neal said. "My thing was, I'm not going to be running if you're not going to throw it. I know [point guard Steve] Nash will throw it. If I get a chance to get some high-percentage shots, I'll take those shots, but I'm not looking to disrupt anything.

"This team already has two go-to guys [Nash and Amare Stoudemire]. I don't have to come in and try to take over. Those guys are going to do what they are doing. I'm more like a senior advisor."

Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni, who figures O'Neal will play about 20 minutes tonight, pooh-poohs any speculation the 7-1, 330-pound-something center could slow down his high-flying squad.

"He's quick as anybody we have," D'Antoni said. "He can run up and down. He's going to be a force on the boards and with outlet passes. The more he plays with us, the better it will be. You're just adding a really good basketball player to a pretty good team. I don't think you'll see us change that much other than having a dominant big guy."

But even D'Antoni concedes there will be a period of adjustment.

"Players are going to have to concentrate and not just watch Shaq play," he said. "This is not going to become the Shaq show.

"It's still the Phoenix Suns and we are going to have to find that balance as a team. He knows he has come to a really good team that has a chance to win a title and he doesn't want to screw it up."


Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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