Stoudemire a growing force with Shaq at side

PHOENIX – This was Kevin Garnett at his vociferous best. Leaning into Amare Stoudemire’s ear, releasing a torrent of four-lettered barbs that should have had David Stern wondering why he ever thought attaching a microphone to a player’s jersey made for a good idea.

Stoudemire laughed. He had played this game with KG all too often, but not Friday. Garnett yapped. Stoudemire smiled. And so it went until the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics went to their benches at the end of the first quarter. Suns coach Mike D’Antoni turned to Sean Marks and told him to take Garnett.

“No,” Stoudemire growled. “Give him to me. He’s mine.

That said something about Stoudemire, as well as what happened next. Over the ensuing eight minutes, he frustrated Garnett into three fouls, the last coming on an offensive violation when Garnett chipped him with an elbow to clear space. Garnett would go on to get a brief lecture from his coach about the importance of reining in one’s emotions, and the Celtics slipped out of US Airways Center with a three-game losing streak trailing them for the first time this season. Stoudemire? He had scored 28 points and swatted three shots to lead Phoenix to an unusually gritty 85-77 victory.

Shaquille O’Neal came to the Suns hoping to see that very type of performance. The first time he walked through Phoenix’s locker room two weeks ago, O’Neal delivered this message to Stoudemire: I’m not hearing enough about you. Every time O’Neal turned on the TV, it was always Garnett or Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan earning the praise. It was up to Stoudemire to correct that.

“Amare Stoudemire is the best big man in the game right now,” O’Neal said. “I didn’t know he was that good. But talking to him and watching him play … he’s the best big man in the game.”

A few people might dispute that, namely Garnett, Howard and Duncan. But this is all part of what O’Neal has called “The Amare Stoudemire Project.” The new Suns center has charged himself with getting Stoudemire to tap into the remainder of his vast potential. Stoudemire might not be the best big man in the game right now, but O’Neal plans to make him such.

This is one of the biggest reasons why the Suns risked their season, as well as their immediate future, on O’Neal, and Friday showed why the gamble very well may pay off.

O’Neal scored just four points but cleared 14 rebounds and swatted a pair of shots in 26 minutes. His presence, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, changed the game. Too often the Celtics drove into the lane, found O’Neal and Stoudemire waiting for them and developed a sudden case of the yips. “If Shaq and Amare are going to block your shot, at least allow them to,” Rivers said. “Don’t do a double-pump reverse that you can’t make anyway.”

The high-flying Suns out-defended the NBA’s best defensive team, winning despite shooting under 43 percent. “Maybe a year ago they don’t win this kind of game,” Rivers said.

How about a week ago? More than a few Suns fans were overheard grumbling about O’Neal’s four points, but they better get used to it. Phoenix didn’t make this trade expecting to get 25 a night from O’Neal. Nor does the Big Cactus expect to deliver as much.

“The days of me backing down 50 times a game are probably over,” O’Neal said. “I’m actually fine with that. It’d be idiotic for me to try to take all the shots playing next to that guy. My role has changed as a 36-year-old. I accept that.

“You have to be realistic. It happens to the best of us. … No 36-year-old has ever averaged 27 and 10, and I don’t want to be the first experimental case.”

Nor does O’Neal need to. The Suns have enough scorers. They want O’Neal to help with his rebounding, screening, passing and interior defense. Twenty million bucks a season is a lot to pay for a super-sized version of Fabricio Oberto, but Phoenix officials can’t put a price on the impact they hope O’Neal has on Stoudemire.

Suns GM Steve Kerr had thought the team was doing Stoudemire a “disservice” by playing him at center. O’Neal allows him to move to his more natural power forward position. Foul trouble has long been a problem for Stoudemire – it kept him off the floor for long stretches of last season’s playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs – because he often had to shoulder much of the defensive assignment on Duncan and the league’s other top big men. O’Neal now gets that job, allowing Stoudemire, whose weak-side defense had already begun to improve over the past month, more freedom to roam.

O’Neal will be taxed himself to stay on the court. But even if he runs into foul trouble, isn’t that a few he saved for Stoudemire?

“I don’t want to say he was sub-par, but he was playing out of position,” O’Neal said, “and in this conference you can’t play out of position.”

Added Stoudemire: “This allows me to just play basketball.”

That’s all the Suns have ever wanted from him. Stoudemire’s combination of strength and athleticism made him a beast from the moment he joined the league. Microfracture knee surgery, however, robbed Stoudemire of one season and slowed him for part of the next. His work habits were sometimes suspect, and his rebounding and defense also have long been lacking. The Suns’ goal last season, according to one team official, was to get Stoudemire to improve from being a “horrendous” defender to merely “bad.”

Once considered the cornerstone of Phoenix’s future, Stoudemire listened as his name surfaced in trade talks last summer for Garnett. But it said something about Stoudemire’s declining reputation that Minnesota Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale told the Suns he wasn’t interested in him or any of their other players. McHale wanted a younger back-to-the-basket prospect without Stoudemire’s history of knee problems. He wanted the Celtics’ Al Jefferson.

That forced Phoenix to try to piece together complicated three-team proposals, the most notable of which would have sent Stoudemire to the Atlanta Hawks. How seriously the Suns considered trading Stoudemire is a matter of debate even within the team’s offices, but rival executives certainly had the impression he was available.

D’Antoni will say only this much: “From our view, yeah, we tried to get (Garnett). It never came to fruition, but everybody said, ‘Let’s try to get him.’”

Garnett is friends with Suns point guard Steve Nash, and talked with him about the prospect of going to Phoenix, his preferred landing spot. “I don’t think they were aggressive enough or did want to be aggressive enough,” Garnett said of the Suns. “… There was a lot of speculation that coming here I wanted to play with Amare and Steve. I don’t think those were the same options were I to come.”

In other words, Garnett knew if he went to Phoenix, the trade likely would have cost the Suns Stoudemire. There was an edge to Garnett’s words as he spoke Friday, and you get the feeling he has long thought Stoudemire has never been appreciative enough of the opportunity to play next to Nash.

Nash said the entire organization was in agreement that Garnett would be a “fantastic fit for us and we all wanted to pursue it.” But he blamed the Suns’ inability to make a deal on their “financial structure.” “It was a shame but understandable,” Nash said. “Somehow things happen the way they do and here we are with Shaquille, so we’re excited about that.”

They should be. No one makes an entrance like Shaq. He arrived at Friday’s game in a black diesel semi, forcing the Suns’ startled security guards to anxiously wave him out of the arena’s loading dock. O’Neal is no longer as intimidating on the court, but he has already comforted Stoudemire, if Friday was any indicator.

This wasn’t the first heated encounter between Stoudemire and Garnett. As a rookie, Stoudemire hung 38 points on KG, and Stephon Marbury promptly declared him the better player of the two. Garnett went for 47 in another of their meetings and Stoudemire was ejected when he became unnerved by Garnett’s constant chirping.

Stoudemire picked up another technical Friday for brushing back Garnett moments after Garnett had dunked over him. But it was clear who had the cooler head of the two. Stoudemire once tried to help Garnett up off the court only to have Garnett push his hand away. “I loved every second of it,” Stoudemire said of the battle.

Two games isn’t enough to declare O’Neal’s arrival a success, or even accurately measure how much he will help Stoudemire. Not when Garnett is still recovering from an abdominal injury that has his minutes capped. “He’s our emotional leader and he wanted to will the game,” Rivers said, “but he’s just not right yet.”

But there’s no denying that O’Neal has already jolted Stoudemire. In the seven games since the Suns made the trade Stoudemire has averaged 30.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

On Friday O’Neal watched the pack of reporters descend on Stoudemire then shouted over the crowd to his new partner. “Don’t let them break us up. That’s what they did to me and Kobe. They broke us up.”

With that, O’Neal turned to leave the locker room. He took two steps then stopped and turned back to Stoudemire, serenading him with Joe Esposito’s Karate Kid theme.

You’re the best around! Nothing’s ever going to keep you down. …You’re the best around!

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Feb 23, 2008