LOS ANGELES – As Gregg Popovich well knows, it’s one thing to sit a veteran player, but it is wholly another when it's a close game in the fourth quarter. That's what happened with Steve Nash in the Lakers’ 91-85 loss to Popovich’s Spurs on Friday night.
Last season’s Lakers train wreck was already humbling for ring-less Nash. He was marginalized in training camp by Mike Brown’s Princeton offense, broke a leg in the second game and bowed out of the playoffs early because of nerve problems in his back and hamstring.
So far this season, Nash has suffered a bruised left quadriceps before watching backup Jordan Farmar key the Lakers’ opening victory. He sat out the loss at Golden State the next night to rest and then was held out at the end of the loss to the Spurs. Mike D’Antoni chose Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks over the two-time NBA MVP who only wrote D’Antoni’s ticket in this league.
“It’s a process,” D’Antoni answered when I asked him about his expectations now for Nash. “He’s got to get his legs under him. That’s the biggest thing.”
That has been the story of Nash’s Lakers life to date, and his body betrayed him again Friday night. He came into the game feeling good—“relatively quick,” he said—but missed a lot of easy shots with ample room to operate against a Popovich defense not showing him any respect.
Nash didn’t feel so good by the time the fourth quarter came, that sore quad having absorbed enough blows that there were muscle spasms. Nash referred to it as a charley horse in the same upper leg where he had so many hamstring issues late last season.
“I kind of was a bit limited,” Nash said.
So D’Antoni opted not to give Nash the chance when he sent Pau Gasol back into the game midway through the fourth quarter. D’Antoni noted that Blake had hit some third-quarter shots and there was some thought Nash’s body stiffened from sitting.
What happened next was predictable: San Antonio’s superior execution decided a game that didn’t have Nash guiding the attack at the other end.
The thing is, Nash is so far from being that 2005 and ’06 NBA MVP that he can’t even begin to take offense at the coach’s snub.
Amazingly, Nash doesn’t have the confidence he can get it done anymore.
“The nerves in the broken leg, then the nerves in the back and hamstring (last season)…I’d never felt my nerves in my life. I feel them every day now,” Nash said late Friday night. “So my body’s different. I worked incredibly hard this summer and got myself back where I have a chance. I felt good tonight; I could’ve had a good game.
“The want is there; I’m still enjoying the challenge. It comes from within. I know what I’ve been through; I know how old I am and the miles I have on the body, but I still take the challenge. And there are still things I can build on and can improve.”
If there was to be second-guessing of D’Antoni on his point guard substitutions, it was more legitimately why he gave Jordan Farmar the quick hook after some sloppy ball-handling in the fourth. The Lakers are and will be this season hugely dependent on Farmar’s speed to penetrate and draw the defense when neither of their scoring big men—Gasol or Chris Kaman—wants to roll to the basket.
Even as Nash hopes to feel steadier soon, he knows Farmar, about to turn 27, is potent enough simply to beat him out.
“Hopefully I can play at a better rate at some point in the near future,” Nash said. Then he added the following without any reporter solicitation: “But also you’re going to see Jordan really come alive and play well more consistently and give us a real player who can help the team.”
A further reality check: That other dude who is going to come back from that Achilles injury at some point—Kobe Bryant has moved up to sprinting but is being cautious about overworking the ankle joint that was immobilized for so long—also plays the guard position.
For sure, D’Antoni will bump Bryant up some to small forward, especially if Nick Young (one assist in his first 60 minutes as a Laker, with 27.3 percent field-goal shooting) doesn’t show any growth.
But the weird thing is that if Nash doesn’t show any growth—whether it comes via rest, recovery or renaissance—he will never be the guy you automatically turn to with the game on the line again.
That’s the crossroads he has reached, even though less than a year ago a blindly trusting D’Antoni was rambling on and on about how everything would change for the better once Steve Nash came back.
“I am 39. I’ll be 40 in a few months,” Nash said. “So you have to adapt your mindset to the new challenge. This is where I’m at. I have to get on top of my body, and I’ve got to let my game come around.
“It’s going to take more patience than usual, and it’s going to take maybe less work and more rest. I really have to check myself a lot as far as my typical approach to things to not overdo and not put myself back because I’m overdoing it or I’m trying for too much.
“This is where I am. I’ve got to accept some of that—and not give an inch when it comes to my belief.”