EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Phoenix Suns have a share of first place in the Pacific Division because Amare Stoudemire had another monster game and Shaquille O'Neal did the unexpected -- he made his free throws.
Stoudemire had 33 points and 15 rebounds and O'Neal stunned everyone, hitting 7 of 10 from the free-throw line in a 110-104 win over the New Jersey Nets that put the Suns into a first-place tie with Los Angeles Lakers with nine games left in the regular season.
"This was very important," said Stoudemire, who was 12 of 15 from the field. "It was a big game for us. Not only did it put us in first but we leave this trip with a .500 record. We feel good about it."
The Suns had a lot of big efforts from a lot of players on a night that Steve Nash struggled playing with a shoulder spasm. The All-Star point guard finished with 10 points and 11 assists. He was only 2 of 9 from the field, but both 3-pointers came in the fourth quarter.
"I had a muscle spasm in my shoulder," said Nash, who played 38 minutes. "I felt pretty confident I could get rid of it. It just popped up after my nap. I had to get it settled down."
Leandro Barbosa added 21 points and O'Neal had 17 points and seven rebounds as the Suns won their second game in two nights and their ninth in 11 games.
"Now it's kind of in our hands," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said of the division lead. "We'll see what we can do."
The Lakers have the tiebreaker should the teams finish tied.
Vince Carter had 30 points to lead the Nets, who lost for the second straight night to fall two games behind Atlanta in the race for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey has eight games left, two less than the Hawks.
"We're just trying to figure out what we can do to get over the hump, and every play and every game counts right now," Carter said. "We have to play with a lot of fire if we want to play in the second season."
Richard Jefferson added 20 points for New Jersey in the game that featured seven technical fouls, including ones called against Carter, O'Neal, Stoudemire and Nash.
While Stoudemire, Barbosa, Boris Diaw (12 points) and Nash came up with big plays down the stretch for Phoenix, the Nets had only themselves to blame. They missed five free throws in the final 3:56, gave up two crucial offensive rebounds and failed to convert chances on offense.
Down by 11 early in the fourth quarter, New Jersey pulled to 93-90 on a 3-point play by Carter with 4:58 to go.
After O'Neal scored inside and Barbosa tallied on the drive for a 97-90 lead, Carter and Josh Boone combined to miss 5 of 7 free throws in a 42-second span.
"I personally wasn't happy with my free throw shooting," Carter said. "I missed three big ones that would have made it a two-point game."
A basket by Diaw and one by Carter had New Jersey within 99-94 with 2:37 to play, but Nash hit his final 3-pointer to give the Suns a 102-94 lead with 1:28 to go.
New Jersey got within 103-98 on a basket by Jefferson, but O'Neal calmly sank two free throws with 48.1 seconds to go and Phoenix held on.
"They were pretty good tonight," Jefferson said. "Amare was impressive, and Shaq was vintage, dominating the paint and hitting his free throws. That makes things difficult."
After trailing most of the first half, the Suns took the lead with four points in the final second.
Stoudemire, who was 12 of 15 from the field, scored inside and a was fouled with less than a second to play. He converted the three-point play and Phoenix picked up an extra point when Marcus Williams was hit with a technical foul. The Suns scored the first nine points of the third quarter, a period Stoudemire had 16.
- Nash now has 804 assists this season.
- O'Neal shredded a net on a basket while being fouled on a shot attempt, causing a nine-minute delay in the second quarter.
- The sellout of 19,990 was the Nets' third of the season.