Stoudemire stubborn about defense

LOS ANGELES -- The focus, the glare is all on him. Which he's embracing, not ducking. Maybe even enjoying a little bit after his unfortunate choice of a normally fortunate word to describe the contributions of Lakers forward Lamar Odom.

You see, in his seven years in the NBA, Amare Stoudemire has always been someone's running mate, never the lead dog. His name seems to be dangled as trade bait every February as a piece to be added to a contender, not a building block.

And you know it has to bother him.

He's supremely talented, built as if he were carved from a piece of Italian marble, and can finish at the rim better than almost anyone in the league.

He's also still pretty awful defensively.

Which, despite his best efforts to shore up during the season, has become distressingly obvious for the Suns, especially after a 124-112 loss to the Lakers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday.

Yes, Kobe Bryant has been brilliant, Odom has been marvelous and Pau Gasol has been his steady, graceful self. Give them credit.

But it has been hard to watch more than a few Lakers offensive possessions in a row without noticing how much Stoudemire is hurting the Suns on defense.

He's late on virtually every rotation, he rarely does more than lift his arms straight up to contest a shot, and boxing out to pursue a rebound seems to be an afterthought.

The cause of these sudden shortcomings is mysterious. Stoudemire does have a desire to improve defensively, having been told it's something he must do to be considered a great player in this league, and finally seemed to be buying in to the notion.

"I definitely focused on that end," he said. "That was my key, to get better defensively, and it's showed so far this season. It got us to this point; now we've got to ramp it up to get over the hump."

The problem is, it's not even coming close to showing up in this series.

Listening to him explain the problem for the past 48 hours has offered a few clues and one overriding theme: misplaced focus.

Stoudemire speaks constantly of the need to "get us going offensively," and to "create some emotion."

Offense is clearly his priority, to the point that he seems to be backing away from contact at the defensive end to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court.

He even seemed to back away from the idea that his play has been subpar, compared to the way he finished the season.

"I'm playing my same game," he said. "The ball comes to me and I'm looking to score or make the play. I'm still being aggressive, still playing efficient. I'm still playing my same game."

After Monday's blowout loss in Game 1, a game in which the 6-foot-10 Stoudemire grabbed only three rebounds, Suns coach Alvin Gentry said he talked to him at least twice about the need to improve in that area, using far more colorful language behind closed doors than he did publicly.

When asked about whether Gentry had spoken to him about the need for him to help out on the glass, Stoudemire surprisingly responded: "He didn't talk to me at all about getting more rebounds. He talked to me about getting more shots."

In a series in which the Lakers are scoring as if they're playing with an extra man, averaging 126 points in the first two games, it's pretty obvious the Suns aren't going to turn things around by figuring out how to outscore them.

No, if anything is going to change the tenor of this series before the Lakers start shooting new promotional commercials with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, it must be at the defensive end, and it must start with Stoudemire shifting his focus.

His comments about Odom brought the glare and the brightest, hottest lights on himself. It's the kind of story that gets completely blown out of proportion this time of year, and one Stoudemire has rightly tried to downplay.

He's absolutely correct that Odom would be motivated regardless of anything said about him by Stoudemire.

Unfortunately, now that all eyes are on him, an inconvenient truth has been revealed. One that has haunted him his whole career, and a shortcoming he has worked hard to shore up.

Somewhere along the way, his focus inexplicably shifted away from what he must do defensively and back toward the offensive end of the court, where he's always been most comfortable.

If it doesn't shift back soon, the Lakers will actually be getting a lucky break.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.