Normally, the sight of Shaquille O’Neal at the free throw line, trying to convert a critical three-point play would be a good thing for the opposing team.
But these days, with the rejuvenated O’Neal having his best season in years, and suddenly, after 16 years of horrendous free-throw shooting, finding a winning stroke from the line, there are no breaks.
And so O’Neal, or “Shaqovic” as he’s dubbed himself, stepped to the free-throw line and converted a three-point play to help ice Phoenix’ 109-103 victory over the slumping Clippers Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
O’Neal made all five of his free throw attempts Sunday, extending his current streak from the line to 12-for-12.
“I made that up,” O’Neal said of his new nickname. “If you go down the league, anybody with the last name (ending in) `vic’ is a great shooter. Radmanovic, Vujavic … all those Viches.”
In January, the career 52-percent free-throw shooter is shooting 80 percent from the line and averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds a game, prompting talk of him making a case for an All-Star bid.
“I just went back to my high school films, stopped listening to people,” said O’Neal, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds Sunday. “I was always a pretty good shooter in high school, but I tried to make it better rather than staying with what I know. Listening to people, changing the form, just trying a bit too hard.”
For the Clippers (8-29), who’ve lost 11 straight games, O’Neal’s newfound rhythm was just the latest piece of evidence in what some players have begun calling a “cursed” season.
“It has been really tough,” forward Al Thornton said. “It just seems like there has been a curse every game.”
Not that it was going to be easy to beat the Suns (21-13) without three of their four leading scorers (Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph) once again.
Or, with a note in the Phoenix locker room warning the team not to underestimate the Clippers, who seem to be play hard enough to contend for a victory on most nights, but rarely have the gas left to finish off games.
“They’ve been playing people tough,” Phoenix coach Terry Porter said. “They’re short-handed right now, but even during this stretch (of losses), they’ve been playing people tough.”
Tough, but not tough enough.
After rallying from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to take a 98-95 lead on Thornton’s turnaround 15-footer with 4 minutes, 27 seconds remaining, the Clippers failed to get stops at the defensive end and were outscored 14-5 down the stretch.
Grant Hill, who had 21 points on the day, scored seven of the Suns final 14 points. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 26 points and Jason Richardson added 21.
Marcus Camby had 18 points and 18 rebounds for the Clippers. Thornton had a team-high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
“The other team has been making the big plays,” Clippers swingman Steve Novak said. “We just need to get in there and make big stops, make big shots. We’ve been doing those things in the course of the game, but really when it’s crunch time we haven’t been able to close it out. ”
O’Neal’s three-point play with 2:05 remaining extended the lead to 105-100 and the Clippers never seriously threatened again.
“It’s not like it used to be, when you could play straight up and take a foul and know that you could get one, maybe two misses out of the deal,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said of O’Neal’s free-throw shooting. “To his credit, it’s a totally different deal with him now.”
Dunleavy was ejected with 6:00 remaining in the third quarter after arguing a non-call on rookie Eric Gordon. The Clippers were called for an unsightly eight offensive fouls on Sunday.
“I certainly didn’t agree with all of them, but most of them were right,” Dunleavy said. “We have to do a better job of reading those situations and avoiding those kind of opportunities.”