Over the past several weeks, there has been much talk about how Amare Stoudemire has worked on his shot, that this is the key to his projected rise to superstar status.
But what about Stoudemire the passer? Or Stoudemire the sharp-eyed defender?
The second-year forward put these aspects of his game together in one of his best all-round performances in leading the Suns to a wire-to-wire 95-82 win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night at America West Arena.
Stoudemire, who has come up with an assist about once every full moon, tied a career high with four assists (he'd had just one in the first nine games). He also came up with a trio of steals, all in the fourth quarter, as the Suns put the game away. "I can pass with no problem," said Stoudemire, who also had 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Also, "My defense has improved tremendously. That's what I've been focusing on, besides my jump shot. I want to be a great defender. I have that in my repertoire. I do that in practice. I just need to do it in games more often."
Stoudemire and friends threw a new wrinkle at the Bulls, at times playing an effective 2-3 zone defense, a move intended to keep their rebounders closer to the basket.
They also attacked the Bulls' zone with much better results than in the recent past.
Their first-half numbers were stunning: a season-high 57 points on 57 percent shooting, with 18 assists and just three turnovers. The Bulls looked like they hadn't practiced the zone much, said Shawn Marion (19 points, nine rebounds, three steals).
"The middle was wide open," Marion said. "We didn't even have to reverse the ball (from side to side)."
In breaking a three-game losing streak, the Suns (4-6) evened their home record at 3-3.
"We needed a win, but we also needed a pretty win," said Scott Williams, who made his season's debut after recovering from thumb surgery.
"The first half was a pretty half of basketball." The Suns also got big boosts from:
- The duo of Williams and Jake Voskuhl, who combined for 20 points and 13 rebounds, fairly stunning totals for Suns centers.
Williams started and had 10 rebounds in 25 minutes.
- Zarko Cabarkapa had 14 points, his high so far, in 14 minutes.
Suns coach Frank Johnson had talked of plans to play the rookie from Serbia more often. But when it came right down to it, Johnson admits he worried about defensive matchups for Cabarkapa and ended up playing him little or not at all.
This time, Johnson put him in early and let him play. In the season's first few games, "I was a little nervous," the rookie said. "Now, I feel better."
Cabarkapa helped break the Bulls' zone for a while, making up a front line the Suns had talked about on the day they drafted him: Cabarkapa and Marion at forward, with Stoudemire as a nominal center. Afterward, Johnson praised Williams, Stephon Marbury (12 assists, two turnovers) and Penny Hardaway, who played a smooth game in relief at both guard spots.
In this game, Johnson shifted his approach a bit. As many coaches of struggling teams do, he narrowed his rotation to eight players. Sitting were Leandro Barbosa, Tom Gugliotta and Casey Jacobsen. Jahidi White missed the game while recovering from finger surgery. The Suns hope he can return Thursday vs. the Orlando Magic.