PHOENIX — Sequels typically are vehicles of measured hope and eventual disappointment, but to fans of the Phoenix Suns, Monday night’s Nash-a-palooza II truly delivered the goods.
For the nostalgic types, it offered the opportunity to witness franchise hero Steve Nash directing the screen-roll-reliant offensive attack of coach Mike D’Antoni. To make it seem even more like old times, D’Antoni used a seven-man rotation on the second night of a back-to-back shift.
An even bigger perk was the treat of watching Nash, D’Antoni — and the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers they now work for — absorb a 99-76 thrashing from the home team.
Even though the Suns’ victory doesn’t exactly boost the status of their own lottery pick, beating L.A. is a triumph in their effort to co-opt what would be a lottery selection conveyed – through some negotiating in last summer’s Nash trade – by the Lakers.
For the legion of displaced Laker loyalists in attendance, this poleaxing administered by the Suns is evidence that working without the Black Mamba is a bit tricky when attempted on tired legs.
“We just hit the wall … ninth game in 14 nights and in seven cities,” Nash, who missed 11 of his 17 shots from the field, said when asked to explain why the NBA’s 22nd least-efficient defense could hold the Lakers to 76 points and 33-percent shooting. “You could just see the wheels kind of fall off.”
The most important wheel, of course, is attached to the ankle of Kobe Bryant, the aforementioned Black Mamba. Bryant, who was injured at the end of last week’s loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, lasted one ineffective quarter in the Lakers’ subsequent game against the Indiana Pacers.
But the Lakers managed to win that tough roadie, and made it two in a row sans Mamba by knocking off the Sacramento Kings on Sunday evening.
Without Bryant over seven quarters and two nights, Nash – able to sink his own fangs into D’Antoni’s offense just like the old days in Phoenix – gave L.A. a combined 34 points and 21 assists.
Was it sort of swell for D’Antoni to be able to plug Nash back into his old job description?
“Yeah, a little bit,” D’Antoni said before Monday’s rout. “But then, we’re going to have to play the other way so … you can see it … then what?
“We play a certain way, so we’re going to have to get better that way.”
That other way is Kobe Ball, which – after three more days off this week – could return for Friday’s Laker date with the Washington Wizards.
On Monday without Bryant, the Lakers couldn’t generate offense against a Suns team that had surrendered an average of 113.3 points over a four-game losing streak. The 76 Laker points represent the fewest Phoenix has given up in any game in a 23-45 season that includes victories in both of Nash’s return trips.
Having another game to experiment with, Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter steered defensive ace P.J. Tucker back into the starting lineup and aimed him at Nash. With 6-foot-2 Jodie Meeks standing in for Bryant at two guard, Phoenix could move Goran Dragic off of Nash without fear of post-up reprisal.
The plan for Tucker was to go under ball screens, forcing Nash to become more shooter than distributor. Nash responded by making 4 of 7 shots and finishing the first quarter with 10 points and a 25-21 Lakers lead. But the former Suns great had no assists, largely because having Tucker going under the screen sort of prevented the Lakers from getting center Dwight Howard to the post while on the move.
Obliged to post up in a more static fashion, Howard missed 4 of 11 shots in the opening period and ended the game with 12 misses on 18 attempts.
“We did miss a lot of shots and they made a lot of shots, but we were a step slow tonight,” Howard said. “They capitalized tonight.
“Disappointed that we lost here … we wanted to win for Steve, but we still have an opportunity in front of us and we have to put this game behind us.”
And even though the loss registers as a temporary setback in the eight-seeded Lakers’ quest for a playoff ticket, the ninth-seeded Utah Jazz managed to lose at home Monday to the staggering New York Knicks.
So while it was a bad night in desert for the Lakers, it could have been worse.