Thursday , Feb , 02 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Suns could rise to the top in the West

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – Even without All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire, the
Phoenix Suns appear to be a serious threat to represent the Western Conference
in the 2005-06 NBA Finals.

However, things could change very quickly if Stoudemire, who has been
sidelined all season with a knee injury, comes back sometime after the All-
Star break. The return of the 6-10 Stoudemire would make the already dangerous
Suns the favorite to knock off the defending world champion San Antonio Spurs
in the West.

Reigning MVP Steve Nash is having another great campaign for Phoenix. He is
once again making all of his teammates better players with his unbelievable
playmaking ability. The Santa Clara product is not only a great leader and
playmaker, but he also has the ability to score which makes him an even
tougher player to defend.

All-Star Shawn Marion has raised his game to the next level in the absence of
Stoudemire. After 46 games played, the 6-7 Marion leads the Suns in scoring
(21.4 ppg) and rebounding (11.9 rpg), while Nash, who is the team’s second
leading scorer (19.1 ppg), is averaging a league-best 11.3 assists per game.

Nash and Marion have an excellent supporting cast that has stepped up big time
while Stoudemire attempts to get ready for a return to the court in the near
future. Leandrinho Barbosa, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Eddie House and James Jones
are all averaging double-figures in scoring, while veteran Kurt Thomas, who
was acquired after last season from the New York Knicks in a deal that sent
Quentin Richardson to the Big Apple, has been solid off the boards and in the
low post.

Phoenix’ front office was very smart with how it pieced together its roster
for the campaign. Management has surrounded Nash with players who can shoot
and play a fast-paced style.

The Suns have scored 100 or more points in 34 of their first 46 games this
season. Their offense follows Nash’s lead and moves at the pace that he allows
it to. Nash is the catalyst of Phoenix’ high-powered offense.

Stoudemire is a force down low for the Suns. In the 2004-05 campaign, the 23-
year-old phenom averaged a career-best 26.0 points and 8.9 rebounds in 80
games. He shot an impressive 55.9 percent from the floor and was a force on
both ends of the court.

Originally selected by the Suns in the first round (ninth pick overall) out of
Cypress Creek High School in the 2002 NBA Draft, Stoudemire was just as
impressive in the 2005 playoffs. In 15 games played, he led the Suns, who were
eliminated in five games by San Antonio in the Western Conference finals, in
scoring (29.9 ppg) and rebounding (10.7 rpg).

With Stoudemire trying to get healthy and watching from the sidelines, the
Suns have proved that they cannot be overlooked. Marion is having the best
year of his career and Nash continues to amaze all that are fortunate enough
to watch him operate on the court.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni has done a masterful job with his squad. He has been
able to get the most out of all of his players and has allowed Nash to steer
the ship. D’Antoni has found the right combinations and has been successful
with putting his players in the best possible positions to be successful.

In the 2004-05 campaign, the Suns finished a league-best 62-20 during the
regular season. Phoenix had a solid run in the playoffs, as it advanced to the
West finals for the first time since 1993.

This season started off with a big bump in the road when Stoudemire went down
with a serious knee injury. However, the Suns have shown that they are a very
talented team that is capable of winning even without one of the rising stars
in the NBA.

Nash is a crafty veteran who knows how to win, while Marion looks like a
player who is on a mission. Barbosa, Bell, Diaw, House, Jones and Thomas have
all contributed in big ways. Add a healthy Stoudemire to the mix, and Phoenix
may very well be the team to beat in the West.