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The return of Stoudemire


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PHOENIX, March 23 (Ticker) -- Amare Stoudemire had not taken the court in 294 days. His Phoenix Suns teammates made it seem like five minutes.


In his long-anticipated return, Stoudemire collected 20 points and nine rebounds in less than 20 minutes as the Suns rolled to a 125-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.


Shawn Marion also scored 20 points for the Suns, who scored a league season-high 76 points in the first half and finished with seven players in double figures as they toyed with the Trail Blazers.


Stoudemire was an All-Star last season, averaging 26 points per game and leading the Suns to 62 wins and an appearance in the Western Conference finals. However, he had microfracture surgery on his left knee in October and had been sidelined since.


With the Suns leading the Pacific Division, there were questions about bringing back Stoudemire from such a serious procedure. Stoudemire himself was uncertain about his return.


"It was tough," Stoudemire said. "There were some days where I felt I wasn't going to come back this year. There were times when it was frustrating because of the ups and downs."


There also were issues of incorporating Stoudemire into the run-and-gun offense of the Suns, who often play with 6-7 Boris Diaw at center and frustrate foes with speed.


"From practice to this, it was night and day," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I was a little worried about him because in practice I didn't see a lot of this but he looked pretty good. It wasn't even the same person I saw yesterday. I was a little worried about him, but the guy is a gamer.


"He has a big heart and loves to play. He is playing for all the right reasons and it was pretty impressive the first time out. He had good rhythm with the rest of the team. We have a couple of facilitators out there."


Although the Blazers may not have been a good barometer, Stoudemire fit right in. He started at power forward and made 7-of-14 shots, although he relied primarily on his jumper and appeared tentative at times.


"I just came out and played my style of basketball," Stoudemire said. "I wanted to get up and down and fit the best way I can. Coming off an injury, it is not always easy to fit in with a team. But coach D'Antoni does a great job of letting guys play and that is what we did."


"It didn't look like he had his lift, but a guy like that is playing on adrenaline," Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "For them, I think they wanted to get him out there and get him up and down the floor, hear the crowd and get the butterflies out of his system. You know he is a pretty good player coming off your bench."


Stoudemire scored nine points in the first five minutes, helping Phoenix open a 17-10 lead. The Suns held a 40-34 advantage after one quarter, and Marion scored 12 points in the second period to push the advantage to 76-63 at halftime. The 76 points was an NBA season high for a first half.


"Well, Amare Stoudemire is back," Stoudemire said. "That's pretty much what it is."


"I appreciate what Boris did out there taking only four shots," D'Antoni said. "He does exactly what he needs to do to win and that is why it is going to work."


The Blazers closed to 82-74 with 7:07 left in the third quarter on a three-point play by Juan Dixon, who scored 12 points. With Stoudemire on the bench, the Suns responded with an 11-0 burst capped by a 3-pointer by Steve Nash for a 93-74 lead with 2:44 to go.


"I think offensively most nights we will be fine, but I thought in the second half we played much better defensively," Nash said. "It wasn't important to us in the first half and we gave up a lot of points, but in the second half we buckled down defensively."


Stoudemire had one more stint in the fourth quarter, when Phoenix led by as many as 25 points.


"I wanted to play some more," Stoudemire said. "The trainers have done such a great job these past five months to where I go off their word. If they say 20 minutes, then that is what it's going to be and I will have to abide by that. But I did feel really good out there."


Leandro Barbosa scored 17 points, Nash and Tim Thomas added 15 each and Raja Bell and Eddie House 13 apiece for the Suns, who shot 48 percent (43-of-90), including 13-of-30 from the arc.


Phoenix (46-21) avenged a 111-101 loss at Portland 11 days ago, snapped a two-game skid and opened a seven-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers atop the Pacific Division.


Viktor Khryapa scored 22 points and rookie Jarrett Jack added 20 - both career highs - for the Blazers (20-48). Portland now has lost six in a row, 10 of 11 and 16 of 18 and are on the verge of playoff elimination for the third straight year.


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