Maintaining a commanding presence has never been a problem for Amar’e Stoudemire.
Even when knee rehabilitation prevented the Miami Heat center from contributing on the court earlier this season, it never stopped him from holding court at every opportunity. When the doors to the Heat’s locker room open for postgame media availability, Stoudemire is usually caught in the middle of some debate, lecture or lesson with teammates that often extends well beyond the game of basketball.
After a game two months ago, Stoudemire, who has been studying Jewish culture for years, offered a historical lesson on Christmas from a Hebrew perspective.
A few weeks ago, it was a hysterical chant comparing a teammate’s breakout performance to some of Stoudemire’s explosive highlights from back in the day.
But a few days ago, the scene was quite different in the locker room. Stoudemire, 33, sat quietly and appeared in deep thought as massive bags of ice covered his knees and a box score rested in his hands. This time, Stoudemire didn’t initiate the conversation. He was the subject of one.
As Heat executive and Hall of Fame center Alonzo Mourning entered the room, he quickly made his way over to Stoudemire’s locker and the two embraced – one in a designer suit and the other in only a towel.
“Keep your body right,” Mourning told Stoudemire. “And keep doing what you’re doing. We need it.”
All Stoudemire has done lately is aggressively turn back the clock on a career that once was rapidly ticking toward a painful and unproductive ending. The Heat (28-22) enter Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets having won five of their past six games in a stretch that coincides with Stoudemire’s stint in the starting lineup while center Hassan Whiteside has recovered from a hip injury.
After he sat out of 25 of Miami’s first 28 games this season, mainly to manage perennially chronic knee soreness, even some of Stoudemire’s own teammates initially doubted whether he had much left to offer after he signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract for the veteran’s minimum last summer.
But a combination of persistent therapy and treatment, coupled with an increased role and veteran savvy have contributed to a modest breakthrough for Stoudemire, who has helped provided a jolt that’s allowed the Heat to endure their toughest point in the schedule.
“It’s been a turning point for us,” Stoudemire said of the Heat, who Friday conclude a stretch in which they will have played 14 of 16 games on the road. “We started to focus on what we needed to do as a team. We had to decide if we wanted to compete at the highest level, or if we just want to fold. And I think we made a conscious decision to compete.”
For Stoudemire, a six-time All-Star who has logged more than 25,000 minutes through multiple knee surgeries over a 14-year career, the process requires waging an increasingly strenuous battle with Father Time. Right now, he’s landing some momentum-altering haymakers.
In his last seven games as a starter, Stoudemire is averaging 9.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and a steal while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line in 21.7 minutes.
In Wednesday’s 93-90 win in Dallas, Stoudemire’s four blocked shots were his most in a game since December of 2014. Before that, his contributions of 14 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday in Houston and 13 points and 12 rebounds Sunday against Atlanta marked the first time he’s posted consecutive double-doubles since the prime of his New York Knicks tenure in 2012.
“He’s had moments like this the last couple of years,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We fully believed Amar’e can be who he was in his 20s in short bursts, if we’re all smart about it and control the minutes. That’s the hardest thing for me to do. But when you manage it and bottle up those minutes in 20 minutes, he’s fresh. And he just gives you a highly decorated talent in those minutes. The other veterans have great confidence in him.”
Spoelstra calculates Stoudemire spends about four hours in training and treatment sessions to get his body prepared for every one hour of actual of work in games or at practice. Stoudemire said he arrived in training camp in good shape, but believes he overextended himself too quickly trying to make an impact on his new teammates.
He’s body didn’t respond as well as his mind.
Some saw it as a setback, but Stoudemire viewed it as a reassessment.
“I did a lot – probably more than I should have to start the year from a training camp standpoint,” Stoudemire reflected. “So we took some time to revisit the mindset of recovery and preparation. Once we mastered that … it’s been pretty good. With every veteran player when they get up into their 30s, it takes more of a mental approach. Once you accomplish the health part, you let the lion out of the cage.”
This was the second time this season a Heat big man has used the lion and cage reference to underscore his situation. They were for far different reasons. Back in December, Whiteside posted a photo of a caged lion on his social media account to convey disappointment with how Spoelstra had limited his minutes in the fourth quarter of games at the time.
Whiteside, 26, quickly deleted the post, but it was seen within the team as another example of the NBA’s talented but temperamental leading shot-blocker lacking professional maturity. What Whiteside offers in sheer athleticism and dominant raw numbers Stoudemire provides in experience, presence and a nuanced comprehension of how to play and where to be within the scheme on both ends of the court.
The Heat benefited from the best of both bigs in Dallas, where Whiteside returned from a seven-game injury absence with a game-changing 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 17 minutes off the bench. Spoelstra now faces a bit of a dilemma in whether to reinsert Whiteside into the starting lineup where the Heat’s advanced performance metrics on the season haven’t been as productive when compared with the smaller sample size of games Stoudemire has started.
“We always anticipated he would have a share of something,” Spoelstra said of a potentially more prominent role for Stoudemire. “Everyone is going to have to sacrifice. It’s different guys on different nights. But big picture, especially when you play in big games, you want guys who have a resume like Amar’e. So we’ll figure it out.”
That resume of vast experience includes a deep connection with Heat teammates, which has contributed to a seemingly seamless transition into the starting role the past three weeks.
Stoudemire was in the same high school graduating class with Chris Bosh in 2002, and the two spent months competing on the national circuit. He also played with Wade on the 2004 USA Olympic team, and was still in Phoenix when Goran Dragic arrived in 2008 to play with the Suns.
So there’s a reason for the symmetry Stoudemire has on those pick-and-roll sets with Wade and Dragic.
“It’s not even surprising me when D-Wade says, ‘Man, [Amar’e] you have good hands,’” Dragic said. “Some of those balls we’re passing to him, he’s catching so easily. He can finish. He gives us a different dimension in the offense. He knows how to set a screen. Let’s say if a guy is pushing you to the right side, he’s not going to come and set a screen on the right side. He knows how to use it the best way.”
Wade completely agrees.
“Guys that played before -- it takes nothing away from the young guys on our team -- but some guys have been through it,” Wade continued. “They’re veteran guys. They know how to play a certain way. Amare is not playing off raw talent right now. When you get older, you have to play off [knowledge and experience] more. It’s given us a different look than we’ve had at the beginning of the season.”
It’s a byproduct of Stoudemire feeling better than he did at the start of the season.
Two months ago, he couldn’t generate enough lift to finish at the rim.
Two games ago, he threw down three or four dunks. He doesn’t keep count, but his teammates on the bench certainly do, because they jump up and celebrate each one emphatically.
“Those guys grew up watching me dunk a lot, so now they can enjoy it with me,” Stoudemire said. “That’s been the model for this team. Enjoy someone else’s success. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
"Everyone knows how hard I work to maintain my health. And so, right now, it’s showing. We’ve had a game plan all along here with the Heat. And the game plan is paying off.”
Stoudemire is still prone to drop some nuggets of knowledge after games.
But more often these days, his in-game contribution speaks for itself.