Amare Stoudemire can opt out of his contract after this season, so the possibility of losing him for nothing weighed on the Phoenix Suns until the final minutes of February’s trade deadline.
Right now, they couldn’t be more thrilled with their decision to keep him.
Stoudemire’s latest tear has the Suns thinking about home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, but before two critical games against fellow contenders they’ll try to deal the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves a 10th straight loss on Tuesday night.
Rumors of Stoudemire’s departure were swirling during the week leading up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline, but ultimately Phoenix (41-26) decided to hang onto the five-time All-Star and make a playoff push before revisiting his contract situation in the offseason.
Keeping Stoudemire couldn’t be working out any better, at least in the short term. He’s averaging 27.1 points since the All-Star break and has scored 30 in four of five games - with the exception a 29-point effort against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Already out at this point last season as he recovered from major eye surgery, Stoudemire is playing his best basketball down the stretch.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from basketball,” Stoudemire said about his time off. “Now I’m back in great shape and feel phenomenal. My explosiveness is back, my quickness is back, my IQ of the game, everything is back at 100 percent, so I feel great.”
The Suns are a season-high 15 games over .500, and while they’re only two games ahead of eighth-place Portland, they’re also just two behind fourth-place Utah for home-court.
After Minnesota (14-53) visits US Airways Center, Phoenix hosts the Jazz and Trail Blazers to close a seven-game homestand.
“We’re trying to get to the playoffs and have a nice little home stretch here,” forward Jared Dudley(notes) said. “We have the Timberwolves coming up, and that’s a must-win. … It’s really tight right now, so you can’t slip up.”
Tripping up against Minnesota seems unlikely. The Timberwolves have lost their past nine games by an average of 12.4 points, including Sunday’s 114-100 defeat in Sacramento.
Minnesota has dropped 15 of 16.
“What they have to understand is that a lot has to come from within,” coach Kurt Rambis said. “No one is going to hand you wins.”
The Timberwolves’ porous defense - they’ve given up 120 points 13 times - has been repeatedly exposed by Phoenix. Channing Frye(notes) had 25 points and Grant Hill(notes) and Jason Richardson(notes) added 23 apiece in a 120-112 Suns home win Nov. 1, and Richardson led the way with 22 in a 120-95 rout at the Target Center on Nov. 27.
The Timberwolves’ leading scorer tore his ACL shortly before the All-Star break a year ago, and he’s had an up-and-down 2009-10 while trying to regain the form that helped him average 21.8 points over the last two seasons.
Jefferson seems to be getting there, as he’s averaged 21.4 points and 10.6 rebounds in his last five games.
He’s almost always looked good against Phoenix. His 22.0-point average against the Suns is his highest against any team, and he’s posted 26.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game in his last nine in the series.