Stoudemire's season-high 44 points pull Suns within a game of Jazz

PHOENIX -- Amare Stoudemire might be playing the best basketball of his career, just what the Phoenix Suns need to keep in the thick of the tight scramble for playoff position in the West.

Stoudemire scored the first 11 points for Phoenix en route to a season-high 44 and the Suns led all the way in a 110-100 victory over Utah on Friday night that pulled them within a game of the Jazz for fourth place in the West.

"Just understanding how important this game really was for us, I wanted to come out with great focus on both ends," Stoudemire said, "try to spark some energy out there and really just try to dominate."

He has eight 30-point games since the All-Star break, along with a 29-pointer against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"It's a beautiful thing for us when we have someone who can dominate like that inside," the Suns' Steve Nash said. "He's playing with so much heart and passion for the game, its great to see."

Stoudemire made 14 of 16 shots and 16 of 18 free throws in his 15th career 40-point performance. He scored 27 points in the second half, 16 in the final quarter, in Phoenix's first victory over the Jazz in three tries this season.

"A lot of pick and roll stuff, a lot of post-ups, a lot of free throws," Utah's Carlos Boozer said. "He took it to us, man. He dominated the game."

The depleted Jazz offered little resistance.

"We were just putting our time in," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said, "and taking some horrible shots."

Robin Lopez added 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots, and Nash had 15 points and 10 assists for the Suns.

Boozer had 23 points and 16 rebounds for Utah -- 44-25 with 13 games to play.

Phoenix won for the 11th time in 14 games to improve to 43-26. Oklahoma City also is a game back at 42-25.

Utah was without forward Andrei Kirilenko for the third time in four games because of a strained left calf, then Mehmet Okur left with a stomach ailment in the second quarter. Sloan was ejected with two-tenths of a second to play.

The Suns led by 15 at the half and by 21 in the third quarter.

A 7-2 spurt by Utah cut it to 81-67 after three, a run that rekindled memories of the teams' last meeting. At Phoenix on March 4, the Suns were up by 11 after three quarters, but the Jazz outscored the Suns 41-22 in the fourth to win 116-108. In the team's first meeting at Utah Jan. 25, Phoenix led by as many as 17 in the first half, then lost.

There would be no such collapse this time.

Leandro Barbosa, in his second game back from wrist surgery, opened the final quarter with a 3-pointer and the Jazz never got closer than the final 10-point margin.

Phoenix shot 53 percent to Utah's 39 percent. The Jazz were 0 for 9 from 3-point range.

Stoudemire was the entire Suns offense -- with a reverse layup, a fast-break layup for a three-point play, a 16-foote, a dunk and two free throws -- as Phoenix took an 11-2 lead.

Phoenix led 32-22 after one, then Utah cut it to 40-34 on Wesley Matthews' fast-break layup with 5:28 left in the second quarter.

But the Suns scored the final six of the half.

Lopez dunked a rebound and made one of two free throws, then on a fast break, Nash sank a long jumper to make it 52-37.

In a strange ending to a game where the winner had long since been determined, Utah's Sundiata Gaines went up for a dunk and was fouled by Grant Hill with two-tenths of a second to go. Sloan was complaining about Stoudemire coming in front of the Utah bench when he came into contact with referee Michael Smith.

"I put my arm up to keep him [Smith] from coming any farther," Sloan said. "I've had trouble with him before."

Stoudemire said he was just running downcourt to congratulate his teammates after the buzzer sounded, before the officials put two-tenths of a second back on the clock.

"I think that's just an excuse he's making up," Stoudemire said.

Sloan was asked if he was worried about any penalty the league might levy for his contact with the official.

"I worry about getting hit," he said. "That's what I was worried about, so take it from there."

This would not be the first time Sloan has had to explain his actions to NBA's front office.

"I'm not going to lie to them," he said. "I take whatever penalties they have. I'm not going run and hide from it or beg to somebody. I've been there before. It's not my first rodeo."

Game notes
The Jazz lead the season series 2-1. The teams will meet one more time, on April 14 at Utah, in their final game of the regular season. ... Kirilenko averaged 18.5 points in the first two games against the Suns this season. ... Stoudemire's streak of made free throws ended at 33 after he made his first eight of the game.

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