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Stoudemire 'going all out,' eyes return for Suns' opener

PHOENIX -- Forward Amare Stoudemire expects to be in the
lineup when the Phoenix Suns open the season against the Los
Angeles Lakers Oct. 31.

Amare Stoudemire Stoudemire

Not only that, he expects to be as dominant as he was before
knee surgery sidelined him for all but three games last season.

"That's what I'm striving for," Stoudemire said Friday. "So
far, so good. The past few weeks, it's been improvement, so if it
can just keep improving, keep getting stronger, I should be 100
percent, no doubt about it, by the first game of the season."

The 24-year-old Stoudemire had microfracture surgery on his left
knee last October, shortly after he signed a five-year, $73 million
contract. He returned for three games in March but quickly
abandoned the comeback. Wear and tear forced surgery on his right
knee, and he spent the offseason rehabilitating.

Stoudemire's health dominated the talk at the team's annual
media day, which marked the start of two long journeys.

The first began Friday. Immediately after their media session,
the Suns left for Italy, where they will begin a 14-day trip that
includes a preseason game in Rome and two more in Cologne, Germany.

The second journey begins Oct. 31, and the Suns hope it won't
end until the NBA Finals.

Coach Mike D'Antoni said Stoudemire's prediction that he'll play
in the opener is "realistic." But D'Antoni also believes the team
will be deeper with the return of defense-oriented forward Kurt
Thomas, who missed 29 games and nearly all the playoffs with a
stress fracture in his right foot, and with newcomers Marcus Banks
and Jumaine Jones.

"We're a better team in every way that you want to put it,"
said D'Antoni, himself recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Even without Stoudemire, the Suns breezed to the Pacific
Division title last season and advanced to the Western Conference
finals for the second consecutive time.

"There's no use lying," D'Antoni said. "We think we're one of
the top four teams, and we should play for a title, and that should
be our goal whether we get there or not. Obviously, what is this,
38 years and we haven't gotten one here, so it's not going to be
easy.

"We're going to need some luck down the stretch and everybody
kind of fit together," D'Antoni said. "We've got to get Amare
over the hump of coming back. He's got until Oct. 31 for the first
test, and then after that we'll see."

If Stoudemire returns at full strength, he could be the piece
the Suns need to end their season with a victory parade down
Central Avenue.

The 6-foot-10 Stoudemire's game is based on explosiveness, and
his athleticism made him a good fit in D'Antoni's up-tempo offense.
Stoudemire has averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in
three-plus NBA seasons.

In Stoudemire's last action before the microfracture surgery, he
put up 37.0 points per game against San Antonio in the Western
Conference finals.

Point guard Steve Nash, whose flowing hair was shorn over the
summer, said it may take time for the Suns to adjust to Stoudemire,
and vice versa.

"It's a different team than two years ago," Nash said. "He
hasn't played with this team. It's a little touchy. In the past
he's been a dominant player, and we've been a dominant team, so we
have to make the two complement each other."

The Suns won't count on Stoudemire until he proves his knees can
stand up to the day-in, day-out grind of the NBA. Stoudemire
believes he's ready. He recently underwent a magnetic resonance
imaging exam to allay concerns about his right knee. Everything
checked out, and Stoudemire said he practiced without pain last
week.

"I'm going all out," Stoudemire said. "I"m doing moves that
I've been doing pre-injury. The strength is getting back and the
agility is definitely coming back."

Asked to assess his status, Stoudemire replied, "Right now, I
think I'm at a cool 80 percent. I'm feeling very strong and
confident with where I stand."

But he conceded he won't know if he's ready until he tests the
knee in games.

"I'm definitely anxious, man," Stoudemire said. "Once I step
on the court in a real, organized game, the butterflies will get to
going, and once I get used to playing again, that's when it will
all start to flow as water."