PHOENIX — Amare Stoudemire’s return to Phoenix Friday night was like seeing your still beloved ex-girlfriend bring her new boyfriend into your home for dinner while you are still single and getting over the relationship and then having to sit there and watch them flirt the way you always used to with her.
On one hand it’s nice to renew acquaintances with that person who used to mean so much, but on the other hand it’s excruciating to watch her be so happy without you.
For many Suns fans, Friday’s game represented similar mixed emotions.
They must have been happy to see Stoudemire put up 23 points and nine rebounds while opening up the perimeter for his teammates to drill 17 three-pointers, one shy of the Suns opponent franchise record.
Stoudemire made just that kind of impact for years in Phoenix as the Suns blew out opponent after opponent that just could not handle all that firepower.
Now it’s the Suns’ offense that lacks a go-to scorer who opens up the game for everyone else with their attack grinding to a halt with four consecutive games below the century mark, which hasn’t happened since December 2005 …. when STAT was sidelined by knee surgery.
“The great thing about our team is that we’re so versatile so no matter how teams play us we’ve got players who can adjust,” Stoudemire said of the Knicks, a statement he’s uttered many times about Suns teams of yore that no longer holds true as the offense lacks spacing, cohesiveness and any kind of an interior threat.
Yesterday I analyzed some advanced stats to conclude that STAT isn’t playing too much better than he did with the Suns and that he’s actually lost some of his efficiency with the higher usage that has made his per game numbers look so good. He’s still a defensive liability as the Knicks are much better at that end when he sits, but he’s also still a special offensive player.
My article was not meant to knock STAT so much as it was to recognize that what he’s doing now he’s been doing his whole career, just now he’s doing it in the media capital of the world.
Still, it was stunning to see the Knicks out Suns the Suns in their own building with Phoenix’s old wily coach orchestrating a masterpiece from Stoudemire and a team of shooters.
“I had one objective, and that was to dominate from the start,” Amare said. “That was the main goal was to dominate from the get-go.”
I was a bit taken aback by the brash nature of that Stoudemire response, but then I remembered how often he would make such proclamations that seemed so silly and thus I realized this was just one more example of same old Amare.
Another big part of this night concerned the fan reaction. From the appreciative applause he received during pregame introductions to the handful of pro-Amare signs and jerseys, there was much love for STAT and no hate that I could find. Here’s more of what I discovered when interviewing Suns fans on their feelings toward Stoudemire before the game:
As you can see, all five people I spoke with are Suns fans still cheering on Stoudemire. I scoured the crowd for signs and jerseys that would either be pro-Amare or anti-Amare and all I could find was the positive stuff.
“It was great,” Amare said of the crowd’s reaction. “It lets me know the fans are still appreciative. It was a good ovation. I love Phoenix fans forever.”
Added head coach Mike D’Antoni: “It’s good. He’s done a lot of things here, so you kind of thought that.”
I’m not surprised by the reaction, but it was a striking contrast in comparison to the LeBron situation. The next time Bron decides to leave a city, he needs to hire Amare’s PR people.
Both Amare and LeBron left contenders to join new teams that are thriving while their old squads stumble. Perhaps because the Suns did not offer a full guaranteed max deal and since there has been debate as to whether a long-term deal for Stoudemire would be in the best interests of the franchise, the blame for the Suns’ current predicament has been shifted elsewhere.
To continue my analogy of the jilted lover, on a night like this it’s easy just to remember the good times. When you watch Amare stroke mid-range jumpers and dive hard to the rim, it doesn’t take much to remember how much better the Suns’ offense was with that dynamic.
But there was a reason this relationship ended, and it’s not just because Robert Sarver didn’t want to dole out a max contract.
The Suns clearly had reservations about Stoudemire’s ability to be the leader of the franchise’s next generation as well as concerns about his future health. The New York Times’ Howard Beck explains that the new cartilage from STAT’s microfracture surgery might not last more than a couple years, and Beck quotes Steve Kerr saying the Suns expected Stoudemire to have just two or three really good years left in him.
There’s no question that the Suns botched the post-Amare aftermath this summer, but we won’t know whether the Suns botched the decision not to offer the max fully guaranteed for a few more years. If their injury fears are realized and Stoudemire cannot lead the Knicks further than he led the Suns, perhaps Sarver went as far as was reasonable.
But on this night it was impossible to ignore what the Suns are missing in the present.
Amare Stoudemire’s impact makes the Knicks a legitimate playoff team, whereas his absence and the lack of a competent replacement puts the Suns in lottery territory.
That was on display in US Airways Center Friday night as a spirited Stoudemire led his Knicks to the kind of romp that never happened when he roamed these parts.
Although Suns fans wished him well, Amare’s conquest was as easy to take as watching your beloved ex make out with her new boyfriend right in front of you.
D’Antoni on the Suns: “They’re still trying to find their identity, and they will, but any time you make a trade it’s tough. They’ll bounce back.” … Felton on Stoudemire: “I know he really wanted this win.”