- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PHOENIX You're undoubtedly wondering how the Phoenix Suns plan to counter the Dallas Mavericks' new defensive concept. That's the scheme that calls for zero defense on Steve Nash and blanket coverage of Amare Stoudemire.
Mike D'Antoni wonders, too.
"There's nothing you can really do," D'Antoni told reporters after Tuesday's practice, "if their whole team is going to guard Amare.
"I guess we can say, 'Please don't do that.' "
No. That's not really an option. So the Suns' coach is going to keep the ball in Nash's hands, urge his best shooter to shoot 30 times if the Mavs pick-and-roll plan is conceding to the little guy and simply let instinct guide Stoudemire through the forest around him.
The Suns' reasoning?
Instinct has been pretty good to Amare.
Instinct "My raw talent," Amare calls it enabled him to average 26 points and nine rebounds in the regular season. He has upped that production to 26.6 points and 10.9 boards in the playoffs, despite two stark reminders already in this series of an oft-overlooked detail in Amare's development.
He's still learning how to play.
In Game 2 came the reminder that Stoudemire, amazing as it sounds for a big man with his numbers, really doesn't have a post-up game yet. Perhaps we should have listened all season when Amare urged us not to call him a center. He couldn't establish post position against the comparatively tiny Michael Finley that night.
In Game 4 came more confusion for the 22-year-old, when Avery Johnson hatched another successful wrinkle. The Mavericks (several of them) never left Stoudemire's side, at their coach's behest. Amare didn't know what to do nor did Nash for a half because they had never seen the approach before, at least not to that degree.
Of course, as disconcerting as such developments might seem in the heart of the increasingly open West playoffs, they also serve as illustrations to underline why the Suns are so excited about their future.
How could they not be? Look at what Stoudemire, who finished nine spots behind Nash in MVP balloting, is doing without the savvy.
The feeling in Phoenix is that Stoudemire will rebound in Wednesday's Game 5 with his customary 30-plus points against the Mavericks, even if D'Antoni isn't exactly sure how (or just not telling). Sunday's 15-point struggles in Game 4 marked the first time in seven meetings with Dallas (regular season and playoffs) in which Stoudemire failed to reach the 30-point plateau. And don't forget that when something similar to Sunday night (five fouls and three field goals) happened in Game 1 of the Memphis series, when Stoudemire managed just three baskets and nine points, he finished with 34 in the next game.
Yet the Suns are even more confident that Stoudemire will eventually learn all the tricks he doesn't know to supplement the sick talent you can't teach.
"He's a sponge," D'Antoni insists.
D'Antoni likes to remind folks that Stoudemire "couldn't shoot and couldn't play defense" when he got to the desert.
"Other than that," D'Antoni jokes, "he was pretty good."
Stoudemire still beat out Yao Ming for the Rookie of the Year trophy, and then lobbied as hard as anyone in the organization last summer for the signing of Nash, knowing he needed an on-court coach.
Stoudemire and Nash have since supplanted Nash and Dirk Nowitzki as the new-millennium answer to John Stockton-to-Karl Malone in the pantheon of deadly pick-and-roll combos. Nash's precision and vision and Stoudemire's diligent work to develop a good jump shot made this a fearsome tandem immediately, but it's really just a start. Stoudemire, like Malone before him, has gradually raised his free-throw percentage every season (from .661 to .713 to .733) and has the ability to crack the 80 Percent Club.
You can also bet on Stoudemire to start reading the game better and finally develop a back-to-basket game.
"He wants to be the best," D'Antoni said. "Ever."
Said Suns president Bryan Colangelo: "Amare is a power forward who happens to be occupying the center position on the lineup card. The game has changed and so has the role of the conventional center. Unless I am missing something, the future of the position is a blend of power and finesse. That to me describes Amare right now."
Throw in antsy, too. Having two off days since the Game 4 defeat undoubtedly helps recharge 30-somethings Nash and Jim Jackson, whose move into the starting lineup in place of the injured Joe Johnson has left the Suns with virtually no bench. Yet two days is too many for Stoudemire, who's itching to atone for the Phoenix energy drop.
Fact is, as much as Dallas liked the look of its newfound Let Nash Go alignment, Stoudemire did manage to chip in 15 points, enabling the Stoudemire-Nash tag team to total 63 points. Phoenix lost Game 4 because it gave up 119 points, scored only two on the fast break in the first half and surrendered 16 offensive rebounds.
The Suns' only concern if that pattern continues, not surprisingly, is that Stoudemire will fade out of games defensively if he's frustrated on offense. Stoudemire, though, insists that we needn't wonder about what happens next. He's predicting that the Suns' energy will be markedly better and that instinct will guide him to the openings that can route him back to the poor, helpless rims at America West Arena.
"I feel I can still get big numbers, just by my raw talent," Stoudemire said.
"I don't think that triple-team thing is gonna work (again)."
Not forever, that's for sure.
Amare Stoudemire is still grasping the game, writes Marc Stein, so if you think he's hard to stop now ...