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Original Issue

Inside the NBA

Desert Bloom
A more mature Stephon Marbury has lifted Phoenix into playoff

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.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Marbury leads the Suns in scoring but has become more willing to dish the ball.

scout's Take

An opposing scout on Clippers point guard Andre Miller, who's
among eight L.A. players slated for free agency this summer:

"Miller's stock has dropped this year. With Cleveland last season
he led the NBA in assists [10.9 per game], which put him up there
with point guards like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. But he's had a
drop-off this year [to 6.8] despite having better talent around
him. Miller hasn't been able to show leadership in that locker
room. He's a smart player with all-around skills, and he's going
to have a nice career once he gets liberated from the Clippers.
But most of the teams with free-agent money are struggling to
find leadership, and I don't know if they're going to get that
from a low-key guy like Miller."