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When Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks' power forward, moves toward the basket, he first brings the ball up high over his shoulders. Or down low near his knees. Then he bumps into his defender, or takes a half a step back and hits a jump shot.
Or, sometimes he just spins around to free himself and drives to the basket. Or, occasionally, if he's close enough to the basket, he'll skip the whole routine and just dunk over the man guarding him.
The Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire drives to the basket against an off-balance Andrea Bargnani in a game against the Raptors on Oct. 27 in Toronto.
Mr. Stoudemire has scored 30 points in eight straight games, a Knicks franchise record and opposing players say there's a good reason for Mr. Stoudemire's success: He might be the hardest player in the NBA to guard.
With "legs like pogo sticks", according to Minnesota forward Kevin Love and the biggest hands Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has ever seen on a player, he is an athletic marvel and basketball's master of improvisation.
If Mr. Stoudemire has looked unstoppable lately, it's because he just might be.
Knicks assistant coach Herb Williams said that a vast majority of big men have one move near the basket, and then a counter to that move in case the defense has prepared for it. Mr. Stoudemire said he has at least five moves near the basket, with counters for each one.
Mr. Stoudemire signed with the Knicks as a free agent in July after spending the first eight years of career with the Phoenix Suns. He is averaging 26.2 points per game and is an MVP candidate. The 6-foot-10, 28-year-old has led the Knicks to wins in 13 of their last 14 games. They enter Wednesday's game at the Garden against the 19-4 Boston Celtics with a record of 16-9, their best start after 25 games since they were 18-7 in 1996.
So what is it like to guard Mr. Stoudemire? The player who has faced him most this season is 24-year-old rookie Timofey Mozgov, who faces Mr. Stoudemire every day in practice.
Typically, for Mr. Mozgov, it plays out like this: Mr. Stoudemire will catch an entry pass and turn around almost immediately, quicker than any other big man. Then he will fake a shot twice, flinch, maybe flash a smile and then, eventually, and unpredictably, he will start to move toward the basket.
"Even if you're ready," Mr. Mozgov said. "There's nothing to do."
Once there, Mr. Stoudemire is known as a ferocious dunker. He is tied for the NBA lead with 53.
"He's got an amazing touch around the basket and it's not just the finishing," said Steve Kerr, Mr. Stoudemire's former general manager in Phoenix and now a TNT analyst. "Yeah, he has the dunks, but it's the little five-footers, which are really difficult for big guys, and he hits these floaters that you would never see Dwight Howard do, or any other big man, and he makes them routinely."
There are genetic factors at work. Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said Mr. Stoudemire's hands allow him "to just grab the ball and dunk. The basketball is like a tennis ball in his hands. Just like Dr. J and those guys, it's a combination of the ability to go laterally, his speed and strength and his hands, which are like vice grips."
Mr. Stoudemire said he does not play like a typical big man, and that is not an accident. He did not play organized basketball until he was 14, so he spent his early basketball life as a wing player, driving into the lane from the perimeter and shooting outside shots. Mr. Stoudemire attributes his style of play to the fact that he did not get the early lessons that a typical big man gets in youth basketball, where you stand under the basket and your creativity is stifled.
Mr. Stoudemire dislikes playing with his back to the basket, which is the normal positioning for NBA forwards and centers. Mr. Stoudemire said he first discovered his athleticism when he dunked in elementary school on slightly lowered rims. As he grew into his body, he developed a high basketball IQ, according to Mr. D'Antoni, who called his improvement from his rookie year "mind-boggling".
"He finds out what he needs," Mr. D'Antoni said. "Some of it's God-given ability, but, for instance, he needed a jump shot, we told him 'Once you develop a jump shot they can't guard you', and well, guess what, he goes out and develops one of the best jump shots in the league."
According to the website Hoopdata, Mr. Stoudemire shoots 42 percent from 10 to 15 feet. By comparison, Miami Heat star LeBron James shoots 29% from that distance.
Mr. Stoudemire said some of his moves near the basket are imagined and then practiced behind closed doors, while most come through trial-and-error during the game. When he arrived in the NBA, he realized that defenders were quick to take moves away, so he decided to develop an expanded repertoire.
For instance, he starts moves by studying his defender and seeing where their hands are. If they are up, he brings the ball down low,. If they are down, he brings the ball up high. Then he uses what multiple players call the quickest first step in the game.
Leandro Barbosa of the Toronto Raptors, Mr. Stoudemire's former teammate who has faced him three times this season, said he typically only has a few moves that start his drive to the basket. "He'll swing his arms. That's the start of anything he can do, and then the finish is— you never know, because he can finish in a lot of different ways. It's a phenomenon."
Mr. Stoudemire said he doesn't have a favorite move, only a favorite result: the dunk.
Mr. Williams raves about Mr. Stoudemire's subtle tricks. One of his go-to moves is to use his large frame to jump into his defender. When that happens, defenders realize they need to load up the strength in their knees to avoid getting bulldozed. It takes a split-second for defenders to change the balance in their legs, and Mr. Williams said Mr. Stoudemire uses that time to zip past them to the basket.
Mr. Williams said that Mr. Stoudemire also takes advantage of other, less athletic big men by starting the possession 12-to-15 feet from the basket, thus giving him more room to operate and flash his speed. "You don't even have to jump up. All you have to do is flinch and now he's at you. And when you flinch, he's back behind you or on you, and then you can't get him off you. He's hitting you, he's spinning and now he's going backwards, boom, he's in the basket. It's too late to react."
Mr. Love said that Mr. Stoudemire's long history of embarrassing defenders has given him another trait he can use to his advantage: fear. He said that since nearly every player in the NBA has been Mr. Stoudemire's victim "people are intimidated of getting dunked on—they don't want to end up on a poster or on ESPN, so guys are conscious of where he is all the time."
So the question is, how can you stop him? There are theories but no agreed-upon solution. Marcus Camby, a 36-year-old savvy defender, held Mr. Stoudemire to a paltry, for him, 18 points earlier this season.
Mr. Camby says that stopping Mr. Stoudemire is an intellectual pursuit more than a physical one. He watched hours of tape of his tendencies from their playoff series last season, six games worth of Mr. Stoudemire's moves. He came to the conclusion that "you cant really stop him. You can make it a rough."
Mr. Camby feels that teams can still force Mr. Stoudemire to move to his left, which Mr. Camby feels is Mr. Stoudemrie's weak point. While Mr. Stoudemire said he's solved his troubles moving to the left, others agree it still needs improvement.
"He loves going right, face up [to the basket] and around his defender and he's impossible to stop there,. But teams who defend him by getting him to his left to finish over the top, have a little bit of a chance," Mr. Kerr said. "You can also try to put him into decision-making situations, though he's gotten much better at passing out of the post. If you try to complicate the game, he's been a high-turnover guy. But that's easier said than done."
Portland Trailblazers coach Nate McMillan said, "The first line of defense is to deny him the catch. He does such a good job of working the elbows and the blocks. You've got to get him off of those spots and force him out and then you need to show him a crowd."
Mr. D'Antoni said there's no way to stop Mr. Stoudemire. Mr. Mozgov said his solution to stop him is to foul him. Mr. D'Antoni said that isn't smart either, since Mr. Stoudemire shoots 80% from the free-throw line. "That will just keep you off Sportscenter," Mr. D'Antoni said.