PHOENIX (AP) – Amare Stoudemire expects to be in the lineup when the Phoenix Suns open the season against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 31.

Not only that, he expects to be as dominant as he was before knee surgery sidelined him for all but three games last season.

The 24-year-old Stoudemire had microfracture surgery on his left knee last October, shortly after he signed a five-year, $73 million contract. He returned for three games in March but quickly abandoned the comeback. Wear and tear forced surgery on his right knee, and the forward spent the offseason rehabilitating.

Stoudemire’s health dominated the talk at the team’s annual media day, which marked the start of two long journeys.

The first began Friday. Immediately after their media session, the Suns left for Italy, where they will begin a 14-day trip that includes a preseason game in Rome and two more in Cologne, Germany.

The second journey begins Oct. 31, and the Suns hope it won’t end until the NBA Finals.

Coach Mike D’Antoni said Stoudemire’s prediction that he’ll play in the opener is “realistic.” But D’Antoni also believes the team will be deeper with the return of defense-oriented forward Kurt Thomas, who missed 29 games and nearly all the playoffs with a stress fracture in his right foot, and with newcomers Marcus Banks and Jumaine Jones.

“We’re a better team in every way that you want to put it,” said D’Antoni.

, himself recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Even without Stoudemire, the Suns breezed to the Pacific Division title last season and advanced to the Western Conference finals for the second consecutive time.

“There’s no use lying,” D’Antoni said. “We think we’re one of the top four teams, and we should play for a title, and that should be our goal whether we get there or not. Obviously, what is this, 38 years and we haven’t gotten one here, so it’s not going to be easy.

“We’re going to need some luck down the stretch and everybody kind of fit together. We’ve got to get Amare over the hump of coming back. He’s got until Oct. 31 for the first test, and then after that we’ll see.”

If Stoudemire returns at full strength, he could be the piece the Suns need to end their season with a victory parade down Central Avenue.

The 6-foot-10 Stoudemire’s game is based on explosiveness, and his athleticism made him a good fit in D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense. Stoudemire has averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in three-plus NBA seasons.

In Stoudemire’s last action before the microfracture surgery, he put up 37.0 points per game against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals.

Point guard Steve Nash, whose flowing hair was shorn over the summer, said it may take time for the Suns to adjust to Stoudemire, and vice versa.

“It’s a different team than two years ago,” Nash said. “He hasn’t played with this team. It’s a little touchy. In the past he’s been a dominant player, and we’ve been a dominant team, so we have to make the two complement each other.”

The Suns won’t count on Stoudemire until he proves his knees can stand up to the day-in, day-out grind of the NBA. Stoudemire believes he’s ready. He recently underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam to allay concerns about his right knee. Everything checked out, and Stoudemire said he practiced without pain last week.

“I’m going all out,” Stoudemire said. “I”m doing moves that I’ve been doing pre-injury. The strength is getting back and the agility is definitely coming back.”

Asked to assess his status, Stoudemire replied, “Right now, I think I’m at a cool 80 percent. I’m feeling very strong and confident with where I stand.”

But he conceded he won’t know if he’s ready until he tests the knee in games.

“I’m definitely anxious, man,” Stoudemire said. “Once I step on the court in a real, organized game, the butterflies will get to going, and once I get used to playing again, that’s when it will all start to flow as water.”


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