Suns need more than points from Stoudemire

PHOENIX – Amare Stoudemire says the Phoenix Suns “just have to man up,” and he’s right. The first Sun who needs to man up?

Amare Stoudemire.

This isn’t fair, of course. The Suns lost 126-118 to the Utah Jazz on Friday night, and Stoudemire scored 37 points while missing only four shots. His own coach called it “a monster game.”

But this isn’t about how many points Stoudemire or his teammates scored. It’s about how many they gave up. Phoenix took a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter and surrendered 41. Do the math, and the Suns walked out of US Airways Center with their sixth loss in the nine games since Shaquille O’Neal joined the lineup. In those six losses they’ve allowed an average of 122.8 points.

So Stoudemire is right when he says, “They’re coming in here and getting whatever they want, and we can’t allow that. …We’ve got to dig inside our chests and find that heart that’s in there beating.”

Naturally, Stoudemire needs to do some digging himself. He collected eight rebounds in 39 minutes, an improvement over the seven and six he took in the previous two games, but still a substandard number for someone with his size and athleticism. As for manning up?

Next time Stoudemire sees Mehmet Okur, he might want to consider running him off the three-point line.

That’s always been the story with Stoudemire. Opponents can live with his scoring because they’re usually going to get it back on the other end of the floor.

Stoudemire doesn’t deserve to shoulder all the blame for Friday’s loss, or even a majority of it. After Steve Nash drove for a layup in the first quarter, Deron Williams took the ball and needed all of five seconds to speed through four Suns for his own lay-in. Then, with the Jazz inbounding under the Suns’ basket midway through the final quarter, Carlos Boozer lobbed a pass over Nash’s head that Williams simply tipped for a layup. Next time Nash might consider jumping.

Phoenix isn’t the first team to lose to these Jazz and far from the last. They’re rugged, deep, well-coached and have a point guard who’s looking more and more like a cross between Nash and Jason Kidd. The Jazz also did this to the Suns with Andrei Kirilenko sitting on his couch in Utah. If they can finally start stringing some road wins together, no one is going to want to see them in the playoffs.

Utah also hit its share of tough shots in the fourth quarter. Boozer banked in a half-hook that put the Jazz up four with less than a minute left. Earlier, Williams drove into O’Neal, fell three feet backward and lofted a moonball that dropped through the net.

“That,” Utah’s Kyle Korver said, “was a big-boy bucket.”

It was those type of “crazy shots,” Nash insisted, that decided Friday’s game. That might have been true had the Suns not earlier yielded enough open looks to eliminate their room for error. Okur, a jump-shooting center, made four three-pointers and he probably should have also hit the two he missed. Only one of those threes came in transition. The rest came because Stoudemire, O’Neal and Boris Diaw were unable or unwilling to get close enough to put a hand in his face. Stoudemire and Diaw were once so confused over who was supposed to be guarding Okur that neither ran at him.

It’s hard to fault O’Neal. He’s carrying 330 pounds and a sore hip on his 36-year-old legs. Diaw also has a ready-made defense: He’s Boris Diaw.

Stoudemire’s excuse? He insinuated the Suns’ lax perimeter defense has exposed him and O’Neal. “We both can’t help so much to where guys are getting open shots,” he said.

At least one Suns official agreed, saying Stoudemire’s greatest sin Friday was that he was too active instead of focusing on his own assignment.

Still, Stoudemire would be wise to remember that he wanted this. He wanted O’Neal lining up to him instead of Shawn Marion because he was tired of playing center. He wanted someone to help him guard the Tim Duncans and Carlos Boozers of the West, and that’s what O’Neal has done: On Friday he helped guard Boozer.

But in addition to his post defense, O’Neal brought something else to the Suns: a reputation as one of the league’s worst pick-and-roll defenders. Nash carries the same label, making it a particularly dangerous combination for the Suns. That’s why, upon hearing Phoenix was about to swap Marion for O’Neal, one West executive said, “This just gives us more ways to attack them.”

Marion wasn’t always the committed defender he was made out to be, but he was certainly the team’s most versatile. Without him there’s more pressure on Stoudemire to help, and that shouldn’t be a problem. No Sun has more potential as a defender than Stoudemire, no one has a higher ceiling for improvement. He showed flashes of that as recently as two weeks ago against Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics. His weakside defense, in particular, has gotten better this season.

Stoudemire should already have the work ethic. You don’t come back from micro-fracture knee surgery without one. But to become a truly great player, to even approach the class of Duncan and Garnett, he needs to consistently impact both ends of the floor.

The Suns also need to demand as much. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has one edict for his players: You defend or you don’t play. Phoenix isn’t built that way, and that’s fine. But if Mike D’Antoni is going to stand at the podium and say “we have got to find a way to defend a little bit better,” he needs to hold the team accountable.

The Suns did take a few positives from Friday. They played hard and O’Neal had his highest-scoring game in a Phoenix uniform with 20 points, evidence perhaps the Suns have learned how to better involve the Big Fella in their offense. Phoenix still has time to improve, but not much.

“I’m not a ray-of-hope guy,” Raja Bell said. “We’re in a battle now for our playoff life. …The ultimate result was a loss. Those are mounting are right now and we’re not in a race where we can afford to continue to drop games we had in hand.”

Nor does the Suns’ job get any easier. The Spurs visit on Sunday. Duncan will bang, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will attack off pick-and-rolls. San Antonio also has its own big man to space the floor: Before Robert Horry started hip-checking point guards, he was known for making the occasional shot.

Man up?

Stoudemire talks a good game. Now he needs to play one.