PHOENIX (AP) -Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the Phoenix Suns insist everything is all right, that they just need time to work out the kinks that come with their giant addition.
``We're not going to panic,'' Amare Stoudemire said.
Time is running out, though, for the three-time defending Pacific Division champs. With 21 games remaining in the regular season, the Suns have fallen to sixth in the Western Conference. They are 3-5 since O'Neal was acquired from Miami for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks.
``Time is a-ticking, but we're basically in a bit of a training camp during the season right now,'' Raja Bell said after the team practiced on Thursday. ``We've taken away a major part of what we did and added a piece that could be even a bigger part of what we do, and that's going to take some time.''
Entering Thursday night's play, Phoenix was three games out of first but only 3 1/2 ahead of ninth-place Denver. Such is the state of the extremely cramped Western Conference.
``Everybody's got to take a little bit of a dose of reality,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. ``There's nine really, really, really, really good teams in the West, and somebody's not going to make it.''
This is hardly the time for what O'Neal called ``the experimental phase'' of working him into what had been a full-tilt, high-octane style.
O'Neal, who turned 36 on Thursday, has brought what the Suns wanted to their game.
He's averaging 10 points and 11 rebounds for Phoenix, with a high of 18 boards Wednesday at Denver, and he's erased the offensive rebound woes that had plagued the pre-Shaq Suns. But the team's perimeter defense has been awful, its shooting inconsistent and the ball-handling often atrocious. Phoenix is averaging 16.5 turnovers since O'Neal joined the team.
``All of that I believe is a byproduct of just guys trying to get accustomed to what we're doing now, the different personnel and different spacing on the court,'' Bell said. ``You know Shawn was a guy who was definitely a spacer. That allowed Steve (Nash) and the guys who make a lot of plays to have a lot of room to make those plays. When you add a big body like Shaq, plus his defender, that space that was wide open isn't there.''
Nash, who has 30 turnovers in those eight games, left without talking to reporters on Thursday, but his previous comments echo those of his teammates: that the Suns need more time to work things out.
O'Neal believes Nash should take more shots.
``Steve is the most unselfish player ever created,'' O'Neal said. ``A lot of times when he has the shot he's looking to get somebody else the ball. Sometimes he's just too unselfish.''
While the Suns have been better defensively inside, perimeter players have lit up the scoreboard against them. Marion is one of the league's best defensive players. Bell, also a top defender, has been left to guard some bigger players, as has Grant Hill.
D'Antoni also said teams are super-confident because of the Suns' reputation for being soft defensively.
``Right now people come in thinking 'Oh, we're going to get a lot of easy shots,''' D'Antoni said. ``Whether they're easy or not, they're knocking them down.''
O'Neal said it's a matter of constant defensive effort, something that's was lacking even in the best of times for the Suns of the past.
``I've been here two, three weeks now, and I know that when we get into guys and play with a lot of energy, we're a hard team to beat,'' he said. ``We just have to do that almost every game and you know it's going to take some time.''
There's that word again.
It didn't take much time for Pau Gasol to blend in with the Los Angeles Lakers, but that was not nearly the dramatic change of adding a 7-foot-1, 320-pound behemoth into the middle of what had been a flock of gazelles.
On Friday night, the Suns play Utah in the opener of a crucial five-game home stand that includes an afternoon contest against San Antonio on Sunday.
``For the fans, I know they've got to be a bit frustrated, but all I can say as a player is we are too,'' Bell said. ``There's no book on how long these things take.''

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