PHOENIX — New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire returned home to US Airways Center on Friday night to play in front of his old fans for just the second time since he bolted Phoenix for the Big Apple after the 2010 NBA playoffs. Stoudemire’s only other appearance in Arizona came on January 7, 2011, when he scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help the Knicks defeat the Suns, 112-96.
On Friday night, the result wasn’t the same, but the numbers for STAT were close to similar. Stoudemire posted his 12th straight double-digit scoring game with 19 points and six rebounds in the Suns’ 112-88 win. The former MVP candidate showed flashes of his past athleticism with some strong moves to the basket, but his strong effort was hidden in his team’s sloppy play.
“We cannot make any excuses,” Stoudemire said. “We knew what they were going to do coming into tonight’s game.
“We talked about the pace, we talked about the matchups, we talked about the three-point shooters. We discussed all of this before the game, so it should not have caught us by surprise.”
What has been a surprise to some is Stoudemire’s return to relevance.
Stoudemire has turned into a high quality player for the Knicks in the month of March. It’s surprisingly because his overall numbers — 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game — don’t paint the picture of how well he has played these last 12 games. Since March 2, Stoudemire is averaging 16.8 points and more than six rebounds per game, including four games of scoring 20 points or more.
New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson points to Stoudemire’s return to the starting lineup as a key attribute to the sudden flip in the forward’s play.
“That has something to do with it,” Woodson said. “The fact is he can play more minutes. When a player’s minutes go up, a player’s productivity goes up, and it has been that way with Amare.”
Stoudemire had surgery on his knee over the summer and came into the season with his minutes being tightly restricted. He only topped 20 plus minutes three times in the Knicks’ first 18 games. The minutes restriction was something that Woodson has never dealt with before.
“I had no idea to be honest,” Woodson said of his expectations for Stoudemire before the season. “When Amare tells you that he can only play 10 minutes a game, that is tough.
“Those minutes have grown and we have benefitted from it. I always keep my fingers crossed with Amare.”
Stoudemire’s minutes have increased recently. The 6-foot-10 forward has started the past 11 games for the Knicks and is averaging 28 minutes per game over that stretch. Woodson has him on a 30-minute limit but admitted to being forced to go over that amount of minutes based on the flow of the game.
Stoudemire is happy to be back in the starting lineup, where he feels he belongs.
“A factor that you have to show that regardless of the situation, you have to work hard and still be yourself and be a dominant player whether you come off the bench or start,” Stoudemire said. “Now being back in the starting lineup I am comfortable now, back in my comfort zone and I know how to prepare myself for games.”
Being a key cog in a team’s starting lineup is a sight all too familiar for Suns fans. Stoudemire’s time in Phoenix can be summed up in one word — dominance. In eight seasons with the Suns, the forward wowed fans with his powerful dunks and flashy numbers.
The 2003 NBA Rookie of the Year averaged 21.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game throughout his Suns career and was on two teams that went to the Western Conference Finals — he was on the 2006 Western Conference team, but did not play due to an injury. In his first WCF, Stoudemire dominated the San Antonio Spurs by posting an astonishing 37 points per game against Tim Duncan, though the Suns came away in defeat.
Stoudemire also was on the 2010 WCF team that came within two games, or perhaps a Metta World Peace layup, from advancing to the NBA Finals. Current Suns guard Goran Dragic played with Stoudemire on that team and is not surprised with the six-time All-Star’s return to relevance.
“I know if he is going to be healthy, he will play well,” Dragic said. “He was an All-Star and carried the Suns for many years with Steve (Nash).
“I was watching some tape and it seems like he is feeling better. I think he doesn’t feel as quick anymore, but he can still play. He was one of the best forwards in the league, maybe he dropped a little bit, but he is still dangerous.”
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek was not around the organization during Stoudemire’s heyday, but that does not mean he has forgotten the player Stoudemire was before his knee troubles.
“When he was younger, when he didn’t have the knee issues and you just gave him the ball anywhere within 10-12 feet on the move and somehow he was dunking it,” Hornacek said. “Some of his athleticism is not there, but like any other player that gets old, they learn different things and he is still an effective player.”
Stoudemire has adjusted well to his aging and beaten down body. He’s developed a strong outside jump shot to go along with some finesse post moves that he uses to score points in bunches. The 31-year-old uses his smarts and skills he has developed over the years to revert back to being a player teams need to worry about again.
“I am a much more skilled player now,” Stoudemire said. “My rookie year, I was a dominant and athletic player with less skill. Over time, I have studied the game so much that my IQ of the game is very high and I am much more skilled than before.”