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Stoudemire stating his case

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 7, 2009

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Still a pup in the game of life at age 26, Amar’e Stoudemire wears his NBA experience on his face. A bushy beard. A reflective tone. An understanding that these may be his final days in Phoenix.

The Suns have tried to trade him in the past. He is toying with the idea of opting out of the final year of his contract (worth more than $17 million) and becoming an unrestricted free agent, joining what is turning into the legendary class of 2010.

Many players his age would be thrilled about the possibility of free agency. Stoudemire is cautious. He is in his eighth year, has undergone career-altering microfracture surgery, another major operation to repair a detached retina, and experienced a myriad of personal growth.

On the right side of his neck is a tattoo that says “Black Jesus.’’ Like Stoudemire, the marking is deceiving. He said he has not anointed himself the Second Coming, or Earl Monroe. He is making a statement.

“That is just kind of reflecting on His skin color,’’ said Stoudemire before the Suns’ 110-103 upset of the Celtics at TD Garden last night. “A lot of folks may not want to believe that but it’s true, so I just kind of got it tattooed on my neck. A lot of folks probably won’t say too much about it. They might look at it and have their own thoughts inside but they won’t speak on it.’’

Although Steve Nash is synonymous with Phoenix basketball, it’s Stoudemire who is the longest-tenured Sun.

The steal of the 2002 draft, taken after washouts such as Jay Williams, Dajuan Wagner, and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Stoudemire is a force in the paint despite being about 6 feet 7 inches (he’s generously listed at 6-10). He is a career 75 percent free throw shooter, averaging nearly nine rebounds and 21 points per game.

Stoudemire blended in perfectly last night. He scored 22 points with seven rebounds and had a key block of a Rajon Rondo layup in the fourth quarter.

His biggest criticism has been a lack of interest in defense, which could be the case for all the Suns over the years. Under former coach Mike D’Antoni, the Suns were more content to allow opponents to score so they could counter with a fast break.

Coach Alvin Gentry has attempted to emphasize defense while stressing a faster game with more athletic players to create matchup problems. Replacing mammoth Shaquille O’Neal at center is former Knick and Trail Blazer Channing Frye, a three-man in a 7-footer’s body. He can stretch the floor because of his perimeter shooting ability, which allows more room for Stoudemire to work.

“There’s a lot of times where we should be going to Amar’e more,’’ Gentry said following the game. “But we have somebody else going or somebody else is doing a good job, we don’t go to him as much as we used to in the past. But he’s all right with that. He’s still trying to work hard on his defense and get better at that. He knows somewhere along the line he will get the touches.’’

The Suns are 10th in the league in rebounding, meaning Gentry’s plan has worked so far. Ageless Grant Hill and Stoudemire are each averaging more than eight boards per game and with a rejuvenated Nash, Phoenix could make a run in a Pacific Division ruled by the Lakers.

“Any time you can get out there and play our style of play and really get the wins, winning cures everything,’’ Stoudemire said after the game. “Defensively, that won the game for us. Any time you can get a team like us to play defense, we are going to be in good shape. We’re playing well. We’re confident. We have to keep it going.’’

With Nash and Leandro Barbosa signed until 2012, and Jason Richardson and Hill on the books until 2011, the Suns have to decide whether to offer Stoudemire a cap-altering contract extension that could be his final major deal.

The question for general manager Steve Kerr is whether Stoudemire is worth a large contract comparable to stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James.

The desire to play in a market bigger than Phoenix, where his skills may be more appreciated, could encourage Stoudemire to opt out. While he spent this summer telling folks in Washington and New York that he would love to relocate to those cities, he adores Phoenix.

“I really have man,’’ he said, when asked if he’s enjoyed his time in Phoenix. “Ever since I have been a rookie, I have been blessed with great teammates. The city as well has embraced me. I enjoy the city of Phoenix but you never know what the future holds.’’

Nash signed his extension so he wouldn’t have to subject himself to free agency in 2010. He and Stoudemire have made each other better players and Nash would love for his teammate to return to capitalize on the Suns’ shrinking window.

“I just want him to enjoy the year,’’ Nash said. “Get his full health and confidence back and have a great season. If he does that and he’s enjoying his game and we have a productive year, we can worry about that stuff after that. But if we worry about that now and don’t have a great year, we have our priorities mixed up.’’

Until it’s over, whenever that is, Stoudemire will relish his days in Phoenix. Kerr shipped O’Neal to Cleveland to clear more cap space to perhaps retain Stoudemire and attract another quality free agent. If Stoudemire decides to stay, the future could be fruitful, but that won’t be decided until the broiling Phoenix summer.

“It’s a matter of staying professional and focusing on who we have here at hand,’’ Stoudemire said. “That keeps me focused on basketball. My teammates have been great, phenomenal. I love playing with these guys. So I try to enjoy my time again with them and play every game as hard as I can and try to win and see how it works.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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