Thursday, December 27, 2007

Amare: Out for Blood

I guess Amare Stoudemire reads the papers. And the blogs. And the message boards.

There has been a lot of talk in the wake of that Lakers-Suns Christmas Day game about the downfall of this Phoenix team and that they are no longer a true title contender. During the broadcast, Jon Barry said that the Lakers would beat Phoenix in a seven-game series and Marc Jackson took it even further saying that L.A. had more talent by a "landslide." Now, I suspect this might have been a bit of hyperbole and that Jackson was probably caught in the moment of a raucous Staples Center crowd that was - in the words of Bill Walton - "surging toward the court." However, the chatter didn't stop there. Everywhere you looked, there was overt criticism of the Suns. Most of it, almost all of it in fact, centered on their inability to stop Andrew Bynum in the paint. And this led to more of a macro examination of the team and the way Duncan abused them last year and how the Suns generally can't guard big men. This brand of criticism, of course, tends to rest on the shoulders of Amare Stoudemire.

Much of this is for good reason. Amare is very poor at "doing his work early" on defense, which is to say that he rarely battles for position, thwarts his opponent on cuts away from the ball, or does really anything at all before his man catches the basketball. He's adequate as a weakside shotblocker and is a slightly better rebounder than people (read: Charles Barkley) give him credit for, but it is true that his post D is pretty terrible. This is why Kurt Thomas had to guard Duncan all series last year and why Brian Skinner may be the different between another loss to San Antonio and a Phoenix title - because Amare just doesn't have what it takes to lock people down on defense. Again, this is the prevailing opinion and one that I share for the most part.

However, tonight, Amare reminded us that when he's focused and angry, he can torch people. He came out of the gates against the Clippers like he was playing the final game of his career, scoring Phoenix's first 11 points and attacking the rim with ferocity. And then he started destroying Chris Kaman on the defensive end of the court. The Clippers center has the inside track for most improved player this year and has been playing great, but tonight he was the unfortunate sap that got in Amare's way while the embattled Sun was trying to send a message. The results were NOT pretty.

Amare looked like a gazelle on offense, effortlessly racing around and past Kaman on his way to 30 points in just 26 minutes. Amare was 11-for-14 from the field and 8-for-10 from the line and he hardly had to break a sweat to completely dominate on O. But it was at the other end where he really made a statement. No Kaman shot went uncontested. The balding big man was bumped on every cut and challenged for post position and generally harassed whenever he tried to accomplish anything at all. For the night, Kaman finished with 9 points and 9 boards, but even those are inflated numbers, because for some reason he stayed on the floor for nearly the entire blowout victory (no Sun starter played more than 28 minutes and no other Clipper starter logged more than 33, while Kaman played 41). However, in the three quarters that he squared off with Amare, Kaman finished with 5 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 turnovers on 2-for-14 shooting. Yes, you read that correctly ... 2-for-14 shooting. For a center. Meanwhile, Amare snagged 15 rebounds, swatted four shots (most of them Kaman's) and basically controlled the game at both ends, from start to finish.

It was nothing less than a message to the rest of the league: don't count me out. Stoudemire may not be an incredibly smart defensive coordinator/anchor like Tim Duncan or an instinctive rim protector like Josh Smith or even a hard worker like pre-2005 Ben Wallace. But he's still a strong 6'10", can jump like crazy, and has some pride. And guys like that can make a difference on both ends of the court, regardless of how we label them in columns and blogs.

We've all made up our minds that Amare Stoudemire is a gifted player but a terrible defender. Many have taken the leap and decided that he's a liability and must ultimately be traded in order for Phoenix to win a title during the Steve Nash era.

I'm guessing that if we were to ask Chris Kaman tonight, he might feel differently.

1 comment:

Slightly Biased Midwesterner said...

How about some posts on the Eastern Conference? The Pistons are surging, the Hawks are surprising, Boston looks ridiculous (the perfect time to point out flaws that will make you look prophetic when they get booted from the playoffs), and the Bulls make for a better soap than GH or Days of our Lives. Yet here you are with exactly 0 posts on the Eastern Conference in all of December.