Because the Phoenix Suns have one of the NBA's oldest starting lineups and are playing their first season under a new coach, their streak of four straight 50-win seasons appeared to be in jeopardy.
With Amare Stoudemire still in his prime, however, Phoenix is in position for its best start in eight years.
Stoudemire looks to follow one of the best games of his career with another strong outing as the Suns try to improve to 5-1 for the first time since 2000-01 in a road game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night.
Phoenix (4-1) traded 30-year-old Shawn Marion for an aging Shaquille O'Neal before last season's trade deadline, and replaced respected coach Mike D'Antoni with the less-experienced Terry Porter in the offseason.
These moves led to speculation the Suns' championship window may be closing, but that didn't seem to be the case Wednesday night, when Stoudemire was one point shy of his career high with 49 in Phoenix's 113-103 win over Indiana. The 25-year-old forward - the only Suns player under 32 years old to start every game - added 11 rebounds and six assists.
"Normally, I ease into it and try to get guys involved early," Stoudemire said. "Tonight, coming off the back-to-back - we got somewhat of an older group - I wanted to take it on myself to give ourselves a spark. I was able to do that and carry the load tonight to get this win."
Stoudemire was more than just a spark. He was remarkably efficient, going 17-for-21 from the field and 15-for-15 from the free-throw line. He helped Phoenix, leading the league in field-goal percentage at 55.4, shoot 55.8 percent as a team.
"He was unbelievable," said point guard Steve Nash, Stoudemire's teammate since the 2004-05 season. "Maybe the best game I've ever seen him play."
As impressive as his offensive display was, Stoudemire was even more pleased with his defensive effort. Long considered one of the best offensive teams in the league, the Suns are trying to diversify their skill-set and become a more feared defensive club.
"I'm trying to get us more respect from you guys (the media) and everybody else from a defensive standpoint," said Stoudemire, who had five steals and two blocks Wednesday. "That's an area where I'm trying to improve and really trying to set a tone early with that."
That may not be good news for a Chicago team that's shot 37.8 percent from the field in dropping three of four games since a win in its season opener. The Bulls (2-3) were 31-for-79 (39.2 percent) in a 107-93 road loss to Cleveland on Wednesday night.
"I thought we could've moved the ball better at times," first-year Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We got a little stagnant on one side. It's hard to beat good teams when you do that."
Del Negro knows this Suns team falls under that category. He spent the last two seasons in the Phoenix front office and is facing the Suns for the first time since he was passed over for their head coaching position over the summer.
Del Negro expressed interest in replacing D'Antoni on the Suns bench, but the job went to Porter instead. The Bulls then gave Del Negro his first head coaching gig after a highly publicized courtship of D'Antoni, now with the New York Knicks.
Phoenix has won four straight in Chicago and 14 of the last 18 meetings overall, including both last season as Stoudemire averaged 19.0 points and 4.5 blocks while shooting 56.0 percent (14-for-25).
Suns guard Leandro Barbosa, off to a slow start at 8.8 points per game, has averaged 21.0 in his last four games versus the Bulls. Barbosa scored eight points in a decisive 12-0 run in the fourth quarter last season at Chicago, where a year earlier he hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left.
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