PHOENIX, Ariz. – Amar’e Stoudemire is back.
Oh, he’s been back before. Last season he made the trip back to the Valley but did not suit up against his former team because of an injury.
There is no injury keeping him sidelined now.
In fact, Stoudemire is expected to make his 12th straight start for the Knicks and play for only the second time in Phoenix since leaving the Suns in July 2010.
“There’s a lot of great memories here in this building, for sure; and to be back is…it feels great. It’s going to be a fun night,” he said prior to shootaround Friday. “The great thing about it is we’re playing for something now so the motivation is even higher to want to get this win. And then also being healthy and being able to really play a dominant game is very important for me.”
The Knicks (30-42) have won nine of 11, but still find themselves 1.5 games out of the playoffs.
The Suns (43-29), meanwhile, have won five straight and seven of eight overall to move back into the postseason picture, a half-game ahead of Dallas.
“It’s a big game for both of us. It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere-type basketball game,” said Stoudemire, who had 23 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in his initial return on Jan. 11, 2011.
All of the injuries — ankle, back, eye, foot, hand and both knees — have taken their toll on the now 31-year-old power forward.
In this his 12th NBA season, Stoudemire is averaging career lows in points (11.4) and rebounds (4.7), yet tonight will be his 57th game, the most he’s played in three seasons.
“At the end of the day, I couldn’t be more proud of a pro because Amar’e has worked. He works to play basketball,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “A lot of players probably would just called it quits after what he’s gone through, but he’s hanging right there with us, which is great.”
Only three Suns players remain from Stoudemire’s final season in Phoenix: Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic and Channing Frye.
“He carried the Suns for many, many years; him and Steve (Nash),” said Dragic, a teammate for two seasons. “If he’s feeling great, healthy, then he can get back on that old track. Of course he’s now a little bit older, but it doesn’t matter. He’s still dangerous.”
The Knicks are still being cautious with Stoudemire, limiting him to around 30 minutes a game, though he played 32 at Sacramento on Wednesday and scored 12 points, the 12th straight game he’s finished in double figures.
Stoudemire is no longer that rookie of the year and perennial all-star performer as he was for eight seasons with the Suns. He’s matured. He’s still effective, but he’s playing the game differently.
“I’m much more skilled now,” Stoudemire said. “I think my rookie year I was just a dominant, athletic player with less skill. I think over time I studied the game so much and my IQ of the game is very high at this point. I’m definitely a more skilled and smarter player now.”