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Desert Bloom
Ian Thomsen
April 07, 2003
A more mature Stephon Marbury has lifted Phoenix into playoff contention
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April 07, 2003

Desert Bloom

A more mature Stephon Marbury has lifted Phoenix into playoff contention

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As he bounced from Minnesota to New Jersey to Phoenix over his first six seasons, Stephon Marbury earned a reputation as a point guard who would not share the ball. That has changed dramatically in 2002-03. Last week in Memphis, with 13 seconds remaining and the Suns trailing the Grizzlies by a point, Marbury initiated the decisive play by passing to guard Joe Johnson, who dished to small forward Shawn Marion. Only after Marion had recovered his own miss and given the ball to Marbury did the point guard take over, hitting an 18-footer and drawing a foul. Marbury sank the free throw, giving Phoenix a 101-99 win that coach Frank Johnson called the Suns' biggest of the season.

Marbury has always been capable of scoring in the clutch—he poured in 13 fourth-quarter points in a win in Detroit last Friday as Phoenix and Houston jockeyed for the West's eighth playoff spot. But his coach still gets upset at Marbury's shot selection from time to time, as when he pulled up in transition for a couple of three-point attempts during a recent loss to the Sonics. "They would have been great shots if they'd gone in," Johnson says. "I told him, 'Steph, those are messed-up shots.' " The surprise is that Marbury has absorbed the criticism and learned to make his teammates better.

Phoenix acquired Marbury from the Nets in July 2001 for point guard Jason Kidd. "Last year he came in with so much pressure to outdo Jason and try to make the trade look good, but the pressure backfired on him," says shooting guard Penny Hardaway. "We weren't in a lot of games last year because he took every game personally and said, 'I have to win it.' This year he lets us help him more. As a point guard he really understands when to go and when not to go."

The Suns were ridiculed for the trade as Kidd drove New Jersey to the 2002 NBA Finals while Phoenix landed in the lottery for the first time in 14 years. But the deal doesn't look so bad now. With the lottery pick the Suns took power forward Amare Stoudemire, a Rookie of the Year candidate, and at week's end Marbury was the only player in the NBA's top 10 in assists (third, with 8.2 per game) and points (10th, 22.9). He has also played throttling defense against opposing point guards Kidd, Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Gary Payton and John Stockton, holding those six to an average of 15.8 points per game (4.7 points below their cumulative mark) and 33.9% shooting from the field. Whether or not Phoenix makes the playoffs, this will go down as a successful transition year for the franchise: While the Nets worry about re-signing the 30-year-old Kidd as a free agent this summer, Phoenix is building around the athletic, high-scoring trio of Marbury, 26, Marion, 24, and Stoudemire, 20, all of whom are under contract through at least 2004-05.

Marbury's next assignment will be to help the 6'10" Stoudemire become the Suns' primary scoring option. "We're a perimeter-dominated team, and we have to learn how to use [Stoudemire]," says Frank Johnson. "As he develops, he'll give us a true inside presence, and that will create double teams and easier shots for everybody else."

Equally important, Marbury must take charge of the young, enigmatic Suns, who have a losing record against sub-.500 clubs this season, evidence that they don't play with discipline every night. For the Suns to contend, they'll need a leader. Marbury's maturity suggests he's ready to take on that role.

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