LOS ANGELES — The next time Mike D’Antoni tells you to wait until Steve Nash comes back, you might want to listen. The Los Angeles Lakers’ coach was noticeably fatigued with the line of questioning regarding his team during Nash’s absence, at least the part he was on the payroll for, having to repeatedly remind folks that the team you see without the two-time MVP point guard was not the same team you’d see upon his return.
D’Antoni looks like a hoops prophet two games into the Nash remix of this Lakers’ season. Two close wins over quality opponents, the latter here in a 100-94 Christmas Day showdown at Staples Center with the Carmelo Anthony‘s New York Knicks, and it’s clear that one player, one player as good as Nash, can make all the difference in the world for a team that has struggled for much of the season.
The Lakers’ current five-game win streak has taken a decidedly different turn since Nash came back Saturday night and helped them edge the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. This Christmas showcase game, however, was a different animal. The Knicks came in with a two-headed point guard monster in Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, not to mention Anthony, one of only a couple of players in basketball capable of matching Kobe Bryant shot for shot (and he did as the league’s top two scorers each finished with 34 points to lead their respective teams).
Before the game, Nash said the Lakers needed to play like a desperate team and they did exactly that during crunch time, holding on their slim lead with the ball going through the hands of whoever Nash found with his passes. It wasn’t simply about tossing the ball to Bryant and everyone clearing out so he could try to save the day.
It was oft-maligned power forward Pau Gasol with the “submarine dunk” in the final seconds for the game-clinching points, not Bryant or Nash. It was Metta World Peace with the monster effort on both ends; 20 points, six rebounds and all six of his fouls trying to contain Anthony on defense.
“Kobe said all along he wants me to be the point guard and handle the ball and get the team in position to finish games like this,” Nash said when asked if he felt like Bryant was relinquishing control of things sufficiently at the end of these past two games.
“It was an important win for us,” Nash said. “We’re a little bit desperate . We’ve got to get on a roll and not only improve as a team, but while we’re improving and figuring things out we need to win some games. So it’s important to win our fifth in a row. It’s important to win at home against a good team and it’s important the way we held them there after they made that run in the second half.”
The entire process becomes quite a bit easier to manage with Nash in charge on the floor, Gasol said, for obvious reasons.
“Great decision-making, great ball handling and the ability to finish,” Gasol said when asked what it is that Nash brings that the Lakers were missing. “Just to know what to do in those critical times.”
Gasol looked revitalized against the Knicks, finishing with 13 points, eight rebounds, six assists and that gutsy drive and dunk to seal the win.
For Bryant, however, it’s always been a matter of increased brain power.
“The last five games we have done a good job of moving the ball and playing together,” Bryant said. “We continue to compete. We continue to play hard and read the defense and try to make the right play. It’s a lot of basketball IQ. We’re constantly communicating with one another about what works and what we think can work better.”
The raw physical talent was in place after a monstrous summer effort that netted both Howard and Nash, not to mention valuable role players Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, who was solid defensively against the Knicks.
But without any time to stir the brew because of injuries to Howard, Gasol and Nash, this Christmas Day affair marked just the third complete game all season that the Lakers worked with a full cast of characters.
Sometimes that one player can make all the difference.
“Steve Nash is an All-Star,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “He’s a big piece of their puzzle, he makes things go, he makes big shots down the stretch. I thought he did a great job orchestrating what he needed to do to help them win.”
Nash (16 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and just three turnovers in 38 minutes) executing the game plan flawlessly, just the way D’Antoni said he would when he came back.
“A lot of it is just the credibility he has built up over the years,” D’Antoni said. “And he’s good. It just puts everything into perspective and calms everybody down. It gives you the chance to win every night. It keeps your energy up on defense because you’re not fighting yourself on the other end. You’re not being demoralized by things happening there. Everybody is getting the ball and getting into the flow. It feeds and it builds. Just like a snowball it keeps getting bigger.
“I don’t know if he’s all of it, but he’s maybe the last piece that makes it work.”