West Coast Hoops; Suns at Lakers

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Many consider the Phoenix Suns title contenders if Amare Stoudemire's knee holds up. The Los Angeles Lakers won't get in their way again come playoff time if Kobe Bryant's does not.

Bryant's knee is not as great a concern, though there is a chance he will sit out the season opener while Stoudemire comes off the Suns bench on Tuesday as these teams meet six months after their wild playoff series.

These Pacific Division rivals met in the opening round and Los Angeles, despite being seeded seventh and getting below normal production from Bryant, took a 3-1 series lead.

Game 5 saw Phoenix's Raja Bell throw Bryant to the floor, resulting in the defensive stopper being suspended for Game 6. Bryant took advantage to score 50 points - he didn't reach 30 in any other game of the series - but Phoenix won in overtime before cruising in Game 7 to become the eighth team in league history to advance after trailing 3-1.

Phoenix also needed seven games to oust the Los Angeles Clippers in the next round before losing in the Western Conference finals for the second straight year, falling to Dallas in six games.

Many feel the Suns finally can take the next step - their last trip to the NBA finals came in 1993 and they've never won a championship - if Stoudemire stays healthy.

A member of the All-NBA second team after a 2004-05 season in which he averaged 26.0 points, Stoudemire was limited to three games last season following microfracture surgery on his left knee. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his other knee due to wear-and-tear from rehabilitation, and his comeback has been inconsistent during the exhibition season.

``I think we all understand he's a huge story,'' Bell said, ``and he's a huge part of what we're going to wind up being when it's all said and done.''

While players like Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber were never the same after having the microfracture procedure, the arthroscopic surgery Bryant underwent on his right knee in July is not considered as serious.

The league's leading scorer last season at 35.4 points per game, Bryant would not tell the media if he will play Tuesday after sitting out the entire preseason. Coach Phil Jackson, however, said his superstar guard told him he would play in the opener after participating in most of Saturday's practice.

``He says he's going to play on Tuesday,'' Jackson said. ``There's a disclaimer that he's doubtful. I'm sure that he'll make the correct decision.''

Stoudemire, meanwhile, insists he's making good progress despite having missed some practice during training camp.

He has shown flashes of the monster-dunking power forward who was a budding superstar two years ago, and averaged 9.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game during the preseason. Coach Mike D'Antoni said last week Stoudemire is at about ''50'' percent, and plans to bring him off the bench early this season.

Using Stoudemire in pick-and-rolls with two-time reigning MVP Steve Nash once keyed Phoenix's offense, and being able to re-employ that strategy could help a team which sometimes struggled in the halfcourt when its renowned running game wasn't working.

``It's going to be a process getting him comfortable with the way we play,'' Nash said. ``Our style changed last year from the year before. The ball moved a lot more and we became a team that was a little more predicated on intelligence, spacing, good shooting and quick decisions.''

Nash helped the Suns overcome Stoudemire's absence by keeping the offense moving and finding open 3-point shooters in transition, like Bell, James Jones and Leandro Barbosa.

Boris Diaw could play an even bigger role for Phoenix after winning the NBA's Most Improved Player Award last season. The 6-foot-8 Diaw often started at center alongside All-Star Shawn Marion on a small frontline, but can play nearly any position as a capable ballhandler, passer and shooter.

The Suns hope Kurt Thomas can fill the center spot and improve the team defensively, one area in which it is considered inferior. Thomas had to miss the final 29 games last season and nearly all of the playoffs after breaking his foot.

The injury bug is a big problem for the Lakers going into this season.

Besides Bryant being less than 100 percent, forward Vladimir Radmanovic (sprained hand) and guard Shammond Williams (abdominal strain) are questionable for this contest. Centers Kwame Brown (shoulder) and Chris Mihm (ankle), and guard Aaron McKie (back) are expected to sit out Tuesday.

Many of those players were hampered by those injuries during exhibition play, and even Jackson didn't attend any preseason games while recovering from hip replacement surgery. Jackson says he will be on the bench for opening night.

``If you're playing the right kind of ball, you're going to be fine, and that's what we'll get across to this team,'' said Jackson, whose club plays 15 of its first 20 games at home. ``Yes, we'd like to get off to a good start, but it's an 82-game season and when you want to end up playing well is in April and May.''

The Lakers are counting on players like Radmanovic and even 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum to step up their contributions to take some of the scoring burden off Bryant.

While Los Angeles has won 13 of its last 14 season openers, Phoenix has lost six of seven.

By: Marc Young - theSpread.com - Email Us

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