No surprise comeback on horizon for Stoudemire

DALLAS -- Josh Howard is a Friday night maybe for the Dallas Mavericks on that bruised ankle.

Raja Bell is praying for a Sunday return from his scary calf strain but is vowing to come back to the Phoenix Suns at some point in this series even if Game 3, 4 or 5 proves to be too soon.

Amare Stoudemire?

"No," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said firmly.

"Medically, he probably could give it a try," D'Antoni continued, "but he's not ready. We put it on the shelf that day."

"That day" refers to March 28, when Stoudemire's comeback from October microfracture surgery on his left knee was aborted after three games and followed shortly thereafter by an arthroscopic surgery to ease a fluid buildup in the other knee.

That's the day D'Antoni, making his first big decision in a new dual role of coach/vice president of basketball operations, told himself that Stoudemire would not return until next season.

That's the position D'Antoni feels he has to maintain, tempting as it might seem to consider a rethink. The Suns have done stunningly well without their future of the franchise to claw within three victories of the NBA Finals. Yet who could use an extra body more than them right now?

The Suns' best perimeter defender, Bell, is out indefinitely.

The Suns' best post defender, Kurt Thomas, is dressing for games again for the first time since late February but is still trying to shake off the rust and convince D'Antoni to use him.

The Suns' two-time MVP point guard, Steve Nash, seems to have found some new spring in his legs and back -- undoubtedly invigorated by the opportunity to eliminate Mark Cuban's team from the playoffs for the second time since leaving Dallas -- but chances are D'Antoni will feel secure playing only seven guys in Friday's Game 2 against the Mavericks. Eight if Thomas is deemed ready for some spot minutes.

As resilient as Phoenix has been, surviving two seven-game marathons with the Lakers and Clippers, even the Suns themselves have to wonder how much longer they can last.

Stoudemire, meanwhile, can be seen in Suns gear before every game, hoisting jumpers and inevitably making you wonder if he could actually handle a few spot minutes ... since he is on the playoff roster.

"Next year," Stoudemire says, "I'm coming back in MVP form."

That's next year as in next season, and just hearing that heartens D'Antoni. For two reasons.

It's a sign, for starters, that the 23-year-old hasn't let two knee surgeries in a span of six months dent his league-leading bravado.

It's also a sign that Stoudemire, as much as he's dying to play, buys into the organization's cautious approach.

There will be an undeniably prickly subplot to the jubilation for the Suns if they somehow grind out seven more victories to win a championship with Stoudemire in street clothes. D'Antoni will have a sizable ego to sooth.

Yet that's an easier dilemma to deal with, in management's view, than the nerves attached to letting Stoudemire try to play in game conditions again before the summertime.

"I'm sure any player would be torn to be so close to this kind of success and not be able to play," said Suns assistant coach Phil Weber, who's as close to Stoudemire as anyone in the organization. "Everyone wants to feel needed ... and Amare really does feel like he's going to be the best ever.

"I'm sure it's eating at him not to be playing. Just look at his numbers from the conference finals last year. They were ridiculous. But I think he's resigned to the fact that he's not going to be a part of it. He's been an unbelievable teammate in the playoffs."

It was in last spring's West finals against San Antonio that Stoudemire stamped himself as a potentially beyond-belief big man. San Antonio ultimately dispatched Phoenix in five games, but not before Stoudemire averaged 37 points against the Tim Duncan-led Spurs.

Memories of how Stoudemire excelled in this round a year ago prompted someone to ask D'Antoni if he regretted bringing Stoudemire back so soon, if he wishes now that the Suns had extended Stoudemire's rehab until late May ... waiting to spring him as the ultimate wild card for the later rounds.

"No regrets at all," D'Antoni said. "At that point in time, he was medically cleared to play. He did no structural damage [to the microfracture knee], but we didn't know the other knee was going to flare up like it did. It probably would have flared up whenever we brought him back."

Said Stoudemire: "There's no more what-ifs. I thought [March] was a perfect time to try it. Because now we've taken care of the other problem early."

The other problem, as Stoudemire calls it, was a fluid buildup in the right knee -- believed to stem from overcompensation -- that offset any progress he made with the microfracture knee. Yet as disconcerting as it is for a player so young to have undergone two knee surgeries in such a short span, especially so soon after signing a $70 million-plus contract extension that kicks in next season, Stoudemire is so encouraged by his progress since the second operation that he thinks he'll be ready for Team USA training camp in July.

"I'm just trying to set myself a goal," he said. "I'd love to play against that level of competition. If they say I have to wait until training camp [in October], that's what I'll do."

In the interim, he appears to be holding up well in the role of conflicted spectator, running through a colorful array of blazers as head cheerleader from the bench and looking pretty upbeat this postseason.

If he's worried about the surgeries taking away his unparalleled blend of athleticism and power, no such hints are forthcoming.

"I'm not a man of fear," he says.

He's a man with a retort to the skeptics who figure he'll be crushed if the Suns, Bell or no Bell, can shock the NBA seven more times and prove ring-worthy without him.

"When I see what this team has done, with me back I see championships -- plural," Stoudemire said.

"We're talking NBA champions numerous times."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.