PHOENIX – Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) walked out of US Airways Center sporting a pair of black-rim glasses and a large bandage above his nose. The former was a fashion statement, the latter his latest battle scar. Once again, Stoudemire had pushed himself into the spotlight in these Western Conference finals. This time, however, he did it not with his mouth, but his game.
Stoudemire extended the Phoenix Suns’ season another game and a couple days – and maybe even made the West finals worth watching – after totaling 42 points and 11 rebounds on Sunday in a 118-109 victory that narrowed the Los Angeles Lakers’ lead in the series to 2-1. Though Stoudemire had struggled in the first two games, not all of the Lakers were surprised by his breakout performance.
That likely made it even more difficult for the Lakers to stomach. Stoudemire had weathered considerable criticism in the three days leading into Game 3. He opened the series with just three rebounds in Game 1, then dismissed Lamar Odom’s(notes) 19-point, 19-board performance by calling it lucky. After another flat effort in Game 2, Stoudemire told Yahoo! Sports he might not re-sign with the Suns this summer even if they offer him a max contract.
Somehow, Stoudemire shook off the criticism and set the tone for the Suns’ biggest game of the season by attacking the Lakers from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
“Everybody has the right to have their opinions,” Stoudemire said. “… But from that standpoint, you can never question my determination, my focus, my dedication. That’s one of the reasons why I persevered through injuries and continue to try to improve every single summer. My dedication to the game is at an all-time high.”
Stoudemire’s performance noticeably picked up this season after the Suns again listened to trade offers for him, and Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry says his All-Star forward plays his best in the eye of the storm.
“I knew that Amar’e would respond,” Gentry said. “He’s a competitor. He knows that he didn’t play well in L.A. And as we said, when we got back here, the only thing we were looking at, we have to win one game. We had to win one game.”
Stoudemire averaged just 4.5 rebounds in the first two games of the series while complaining about the Lakers’ size – despite the fact that he stands at 6-foot-10 and 249 pounds himself. Instead of trying to battle with Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) in the post in Game 3, Stoudemire was aggressive from the start, attacking them off the dribble. The result? He made 18 trips to the free-throw line.
Just as important, Stoudemire also grabbed 11 rebounds. His aggressiveness kept the Lakers’ big men in foul trouble for most of the game. The only success the Lakers had stopping Stoudemire came when Derek Fisher(notes) fouled him with a slap in the face, causing a gash atop his nose after his protective goggles cut him.
“Coach Alvin told me before the game he was going to me, coming to me a lot,” Stoudemire said. “And I was ready. I was totally ready. I wanted to pretty much attack the bigs a little bit and we got them in a little bit of foul trouble, which helped us.
“We were the aggressor right there and it showed.”
The question now is whether Stoudemire can maintain that bullish play. Even with the Suns’ Game 3 victory, there isn't much optimism outside of Phoenix for them to win the series. But if Stoudemire continues to attack? If he plays as big as the Lakers’ frontline?
This might not be the last headline he makes.