Published: December 26, 2012 5:48 PM
By NEIL BEST firstname.lastname@example.org
PHOENIX - "It was awesome," Amar'e Stoudemire said, then he said it again for emphasis. "Awesome."
So it was for the Knicks forward two years ago next week, when he returned to a warm ovation from Suns fans in his first trip here as an NBA visitor.
"I was very appreciative of how the fans received me there," he said after the Knicks' loss to the Lakers on Tuesday.
What was even better than the cheers was what Stoudemire did on the court, scoring 23 points to help his new team blow out his old team, 121-96, with Suns fans booing and owner Robert Sarver watching uncomfortably. (Raymond Felton, in his first Knicks stint, had a triple-double that night.)
Much has changed since then, of course. At the time, Carmelo Anthony was a Nugget, Steve Nash was a Sun, Mike D'Antoni was coaching the Knicks and Stoudemire was healthy.
As the Suns and Sarver had feared when they declined to re-sign Stoudemire in 2010, his knees have acted up and he has not played a minute this season after undergoing a left knee debridement on Halloween.
There had been hope Stoudemire could return in time to face the Suns again last night in the Knicks' first game here since Jan. 7, 2011. (The lockout-delayed schedule kept them out of Phoenix last season.) But even though he is with the Knicks on their current road swing, that hope was gone by the time the Knicks got to the West Coast.
Coach Mike Woodson would like to get Stoudemire some practice time and there is no time for that until Sunday, which has made the Jan. 1 home game against the Blazers the new target.
"That would have been great to play in Phoenix in front of my old fans and friends; that would have been great," he said outside the Knicks' locker room in Los Angeles.
"But I'm not quite there yet so I have to make sure I stay patient, stay ready . . . I wish I could play and give them a show, but I'm not able to."
Stoudemire did not point to anything in particular that is holding him back, saying only the priority is to avoid setbacks. "If I'm not 100 percent there are always certain areas where you definitely want to feel great," he said, "and I am not quite there yet."
The hope is when he does return he can integrate himself quickly.
"We've been doing extremely intensive work as far as cardio, so hopefully by the time I'm back on the basketball court I should be in top shape and ready to go," he said.
Just how Woodson will use Stoudemire's skills without messing with team chemistry is among the most talked-about mysteries in the NBA as the new year looms.
But D'Antoni, who knows firsthand the challenges of using Anthony and Stoudemire together, said the Knicks are far better off with him than without him.
"It will be a little bit of an adjustment," D'Antoni said Tuesday. "They'll play a little differently. But you can play half a game one way and half a game another way. Anytime you bring an all-star caliber player back to your team you would think they can figure out a way to make it better, and I think they will."
Said Woodson: "We miss his leadership. We miss his scoring and his ability to rebound the ball. There are a lot of things. 'Stat' is a big piece of our puzzle, along with 'Rook' [Iman Shumpert], too.
"They're not far away. How far I don't know yet, but we'll patiently wait on them, I promise you that."