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2008, November 18: ESPN.com Daily Dime – Stoudemire At The Center Of Suns’ Hopes

December 5, 2008

 By Jalen Rose – ESPN

Watch the Phoenix Suns for a game or two. You'll probably see a team that certainly could host a home-court series in the Western Conference playoffs, and go even further.

But then you might have to think about an 82-game schedule and having core players whose best days are behind them. Great players like Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and NBA all-defensive performer Raja Bell likely have seen their best days already.

That makes you think again. So then you consider the Suns' chances of getting that home court, and you know the younger core players must produce. In particular, Amare Stoudemire needs to play like an MVP and Leandro Barbosa must play like a Sixth Man of the Year.

At the center of this is Amare.

The level of excitement that LeBron James brings to the perimeter — that's what Stoudemire gives us with the inside game. He can run the floor and make plays in the open court. He can be a presence on defense. And this season could become his most impressive of all when it comes to putting up numbers.

And this is exactly what his team needs from him. Right now, right here.

I still put Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett as the top power forwards in the game, with Stoudemire and Chris Bosh right behind. KG does not deliver the numbers that Stoudemire is likely going to be posting, but that's because Garnett's team does not need him in that role.

O'Neal's presence in the middle should help Stoudemire reach these new levels. Amare-Shaq, on paper at least, is the best 1-2 power forward/center combo in the league.

But from an overall production standpoint this season, it's going to be an uphill climb. You could see that in the Suns' loss on Monday (109-97 to the Jazz). Shaq had nine points and one rebound in 32 minutes — playing his second night of a back-to-back — while Stoudemire had 30 points and eight rebounds in 41 minutes. Over 82 games, that production imbalance up front is going to happen.

That's why they've got to make sure Amare is the go-to guy — in a few games that hasn't been so clear.

Here's what he said to the Arizona Republic after being held to a season-low 11 points in the fight-filled loss to the Rockets.

"You got Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry," Stoudemire told the paper. "Scola, it's his second year in the league. Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry, they're OK players, but I definitely need to dominate those guys early — anytime. Nothing against them, they played well tonight. But just from a fact of wanting to dominate and wanting to take over the ballgame, that's what I wanted to do. Wasn't quite able to do it tonight."

Nash is still one of the best at getting the ball to his guys, so feeding Amare shouldn't be a problem, if they remember where the ball needs to go.

Suns coach Terry Porter also knows the importance of resting Shaq, because a healthy Shaq in the middle allows Stoudemire to flourish at the 4.

(By the way, it appeared Shaq might be on his way to earning one of those rests after his flagrant foul of Rodney Stuckey on Sunday. If he fouls like that again, he should get a suspension. He's been that size for 15 years — he knows what kind of force he delivers.)

Change has come to Phoenix. When Amare is the focus, Phoenix has its best shot to stay in the upper crust of the West and keep its title hopes alive.

Jalen Rose is an NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular Daily Dime contributor.