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Suns prepare for big game with Miami Heat
Updated: 2005-01-11 09:16

Amare Stoudemire was a reluctant center when the season began. Shaquille O'Neal is liable to remind him why.

Still, Stoudemire and the remarkable Phoenix Suns say they are up for the challenge when O'Neal and the Miami Heat make their only visit to the desert on Tuesday night in a matchup of the best records in the East and West.

Seattle SuperSonics' Nick Collison, right, boxes out Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal in the first half, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005, in Seattle. The SuperSonics won 108-98. [AP]
"Yeah, I got Shaq tomorrow night," Stoudemire said with a big smile after the Suns practice on Monday. "It's going to be a pretty good test for me, but I think I can hold him."

The game is a classic matchup of power versus speed, and the streaking Suns, with the NBA's best record at 30-4 and riding a six-game winning streak, like their chances against the Heat (27-9) despite the obvious Miami size advantage with O'Neal inside.

"We're going to guard him and hope he doesn't kill somebody, and then we're going to run," Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's pretty simple. There's not much you can do about that guy."

Stoudemire thought at the start of the season that he'd be playing center only occasionally, but it has worked so well — he is fourth in the NBA in scoring at 25.9 points per game — that he's firmly established in the middle every night.

Stoudemire idolized O'Neal while growing up in Florida. All that's in the past, now, Stoudemire said. Now it's business, and he figures O'Neal will have as many problems with him as it is the other way around.

"I can outrun him," Stoudemire said. "I can use my quickness at both ends, and use that to our advantage."

And when O'Neal dunks?

"We just have to take it out and beat him down the court and dunk back at him," Stoudemire said, "so it should be a pretty fun game."

At 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, Stoudemire is smaller than most NBA centers, and is dwarfed by the 7-1, 325-pound O'Neal. But the Suns' strategy is the same as it as against any opponent: Wear the big guy out with a relentless, frenetic pace.

"He's going to be tired, but we'll see what happens," the Suns' Shawn Marion said. "Shaq is a big dude and we're going to try to run it out of him. If he ain't in shape, he'll be in shape now."

The Suns always help Stoudemire on defense, so they should be used to the double-team strategy they will have to employ on Tuesday.

"Obviously it's a mismatch for both guys," Suns floor leader Steve Nash said. "Amare's quicker than Shaq. He's going to cause him problems, and they'll probably have to help Shaq on Amare. But Shaq is the most dominant player there is in the game, so it's going to be a team effort."

While the Suns were pounding the Indiana Pacers (news) 124-89 on Sunday night, the Heat were losing in Seattle 108-98, succumbing repeatedly to the Sonics' pick-and-roll. It's a play that Nash and Stoudemire have run to near-perfection while the Suns have won 17 of their last 18 games.

It was Seattle's second victory over Miami in a week. Now the Heat face the highest-scoring team in the NBA, a Suns squad that has topped 100 points 29 times, 110 points 17 times and 120 points six times.

Miami canceled its scheduled practice on Monday. Phoenix is the second stop for the Heat on a four-game trip through the West.

The Suns, meanwhile, begin a stretch of four games in five days, and a test of whether the NBA's youngest team can keep up its fast-paced style through the grueling parts of the schedule. Joe Johnson will get the assignment of defending Miami's other big threat, Dwayne Wade.

D'Antoni and Nash repeatedly stress that the Suns can get better, especially on defense. The Indiana blowout — in which the Suns led by 22 in the first quarter — probably was their best defensive game of the season.

"When we play defense like that," Nash said, "we're almost impossible to beat."

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