SAN ANTONIO — Steve Nash says he expects to feel and play as good as ever next season.
It’s this season that matters, as long as it lasts, and there are probably newly-hatched fruit flies with greater life expectancies than the Lakers. Of course, that was true from the moment that Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and went from unstoppable offensive force on the court to unfiltered tweeter from the sofa.
But it is especially true if Nash can’t be Nash.
In the series opener on Sunday afternoon, Nash couldn’t find his top gear and make those shifty drives to the basket. He couldn’t get into the paint and create as unpredictably and imaginatively as a basketball Jackson Pollock. He missed open jump shots and finished 6-for-15 with just three assists and two rebounds.
He tried to zig and couldn’t zag. Nash labored and struggled and fought and battled, but for most of the game appeared to be a guy who was 39 going on 69.
“But we need him out there,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
The Lakers season couldn’t have been more painful from start to finish if they’d shot themselves with a nail gun and the first hole came when Nash went down in the second game of the season with a broken leg. He didn’t play again until three days before Christmas, didn’t start to develop a real rhythm until around the All-Star break and then went back to the sidelines with a hamstring injury on March 30.
“Yeah, it’s been tough, health-wise,” Nash said. “I’ve never missed this much time by a longshot. Any time you change environments — and we had a lot of guys change environments — it takes time to come together. And with all the injury problems at that same time, we’ve had fought and fought and fought and not got a lot of joy out of the season. That’s why I’m still thrilled to get a chance to play in the series, still fight with my teammates and try to make something good out of all this.”
All this was scrapping down to the final night of the regular season just to get into the playoffs, and all this is now having an opportunity to let in the sunshine if they could pull off the upset and knock off the No. 2 seed Spurs.
To do that without Bryant and the 1-on-1 miracles he can perform will require the chorus to be in harmony. It’s one thing to say the Lakers can pound the ball into the post to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, but it will take all the sleight of hand of the former two-time MVP to get it there and make it happen.
It’s difficult enough against a San Antonio defense that reaches, digs and claws with active double-teams from so many different directions. When Nash can’t do all that he can do, it becomes almost impossible. After missing the final eight games of the season, Nash played just five days after receiving an epidural alleviate some of the pain from the hamstring and a day after he sprinted in practice for the first time in weeks.
“I’m not worried about being sore,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m gonna have to fight through some soreness and some pain and not gonna move as well I would like and try to do what I can to help. It’s what I can and can’t do on the floor that concerns me.”
Nash receives an assortment of medical treatments each day to prop himself up, and hits the court several times each day to keep himself warm and loose. You can see him trying out there, but you can also see him moving around the court like a crab at times. There aren’t many crabs that can stick a jumper, so his usually dependable shot didn’t fall.
“First and foremost, I’m not moving like normal,” Nash said. “Some of the shots I got, if I were moving well, were good looks for me. I’ll try to just make some shots for the team, create some offense, distribute, lead, defend my guy and try help the team.
“I might not be up to necessarily the standards I set for myself. But we need everybody we can with Kobe out and a lot of guys banged up.”
In his 17th NBA season with a litany of ailments, Nash says retirement never crossed his mind.
“Not even close,” he said. “When I was healthy this year, I felt really good. With the amount of opportunities I got on this team, I was still as efficient as I’ve always been.
“When you play with Kobe you’re not gonna get the same amount of opportunities and that’s the way it should be. He should have the ball a lot. Your role is gonna change. But as far as how I felt and my ability, once I got legs back under me after breaking my leg, I felt as good as ever and still optimistic I feel that way next year.”
The scars are evident on his face, the limp in his gait and the desperate hope in his voice as Nash tries to convince himself that he can and will drag his aching legs up and down the court, and will the ball into the basket, all the while keeping his belief.
“I love to play and I love this team,” he said. “I want to fight for these guys and be a part of this team having some happy times. We’ve had a lot of of down days and stuck with it and haven’t had a lot of success. Having said that, we played pretty well the last couple months. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of tough nights. I want to be part of turning that around and help these guys enjoy this.”
With rest and rehab and a chance to reset a tumultuous Lakers landscape, he knows it can all feel good next season. But it’s this one from which Nash still isn’t ready to let go.