Posted May 24 2010 2:00AM
PHOENIX -- For four days, the Suns were like villagers living on the slopes of a volcano. They could feel the ground rumbling beneath them, hear the hissing through the cracks, see the steam rising up out of the vents.
It was only a matter of time.
"Oh, this was coming, for sure," said Grant Hill. "If you'd paid any attention to the past, you couldn't have been at all surprised."
Vesuvius. Tambora, Krakatoa. Mt. St. Helens.
From the opening four minutes of the game when he erupted for nine molten points to the thunderous fourth quarter when he left the Lakers buried his path, Amar'e Stoudemire was an unstoppable as a lava flow heading toward the sea in the 118-109 win.
It wasn't just the career-playoff-high-equaling 42 points or the ravenous 11 rebounds. It was the way he played virtually every possession of Game 3 from the opening tip to the final horn as if intent on answering every single question.
Oh, there were questions about Stoudemire.
Was he staying? Was he going?
Had he already checked out?
Based on the rebounding figures from the first two games of the Western Conference finals, it would have been perfectly logical for the Suns to re-examine the flight manifest to be sure their 6-foot-10 power forward had actually boarded the charter to L.A.
Former Suns All-Star Tom Chambers went on a local radio program and said Stoudemire was "in a fog" and labeled his work on the backboards "embarrassing."
The rest of the desert inhabitants were not nearly so nice.
It seemed that in the space of three months, Stoudemire had gone from puzzle to expensive bait that the Suns dangled ahead of the trade deadline to a reborn and rebranded star and team leader as Phoenix made its unlikely march through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Then in the space of just two games against the Lakers, his reputation had fallen faster than a body down a well.
Stoudemire spent the day before Game 3 denying a report that had him offended that the Suns had shopped him around the league and already made up his mind to opt out of the $17.6 million final year of his contract and bolt on the Suns. Then he spent the minutes after his exhibition of belching smoke and fire inside US Airways Center denying that any of the barbed criticism had bothered or prodded him in the least.
"No, not at all," Stoudemire said. "(It was) just the fact that I wanted to win, how important this game was. That's what motivated myself and my teammates...We couldn't afford to go down 3-0. We couldn't afford that. So we came out with a chip on our shoulder (and) we played well."
Stoudemire played like a man with a sequoia on his shoulder and against the bigger, taller, stronger Lakers, it was precisely what Phoenix needed. Sure, the Suns could hope the smell of some home cooking would seep into their pores to rejuvenate and they could hope that the NBA's best 3-point shooting team in the regular season would soar on the wings of an outside barrage.
But the most direct way for the Suns to get back into the series was for Stoudemire to take the direct path to the basket and he did, attacking fiercely and relentlessly. He came down the middle on pick-and-roll feeds from Steve Nash and treated the Lakers like his own personal set of bowling pins, repeatedly picking up the 7-10 split and drawing a bucketful of fouls on L.A. He came from the wings, spinning and whirling, going up and under the rim and coming out on the other side for sleight-of-hand reverse hoops that would made a magician proud.
"I knew Amar'e would respond," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "He's a competitor. He knows that he didn't play well in L.A."
Actually, Stoudemire said, he didn't know that at all.
"I felt that I played not bad," he said. "I could have done a little bit better job out there."
It's the continuing conundrum of Stoudemire, the 27-year-old bundle of talent wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma, who says on one hand that he loves the camaraderie and the winning atmosphere that has been built by Gentry and general manager Steve Kerr in Phoenix and says on the other hand that he'll have to decide over the summer where he can win a championship. He plays two games in L.A. like a kitten tip-toeing through a china shop and then after his tail is stepped on, comes back out and roars.
"Amar'e's got pride and I knew he was gonna come out and give it his all," said Hill. "He was focused and he was determined. There was never any doubt. I might have doubted some others, but I never doubted him.
"There are two things: One is he's got unbelievable character and two is he's grown up this year. He looked in the mirror and said, 'I can do better' and he did. That's the best game I've seen him play since I've been here."
After all the questions swirling around Amar'e Stoudemire, now there is really only one more that matters for the Suns in this series: Can he do it again?
Because he'll have to.
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