Suns, Lakers rue the loss of Nash

Steve Nash fought through injuries during his multi-MVP stint with the Suns, but could not do so while with the Lakers.

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PHOENIX — Al Bianchi was asked what he liked about Steve Nash.

His face crinkled into a smile.

"You want a laugh?" Bianchi said.

Bianchi, a Suns assistant coach during the Nash era, still remembers the way Nash brought the ball up the floor, smiling, sweaty hair flopping on his head, licking his lips, already calculating the way to make the defense look bad. The 6-foot-3, bounce-pass assassin.

The pick-and-roll. The penetration and dish. The 20-footer, 23-footer, 25-footer, whatever was left, after his defender was tired of getting beaten other ways.

Nash was expected to make his first visit to US Airways Center when the Suns opened the 2014-15 season with a 119-99 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, but a season-ending back injury suffered in the final week of the preseason ruined that. The injury is career-threatening, and Nash may never play here again.

He is 40, in the final year of a three-year, $27 million contract he signed with the Lakers after leaving the Suns in the summer of 2012. The mind is willing but the body is not as sure.

It is a shame Nash could not make it, if only for the reception he would have received. He made the Suns relevant again for eight years starting in the mid-2000s, and Bianchi and the rest of the Suns followers will never forget that.

Nash won two NBA MVP awards and led the league in assists in six of his final eight seasons with the Suns, becoming the best point guard in franchise history. It is a notion even the mayor of Sacramento would have no trouble supporting.

Nash was a throwback point guard who believed his teammates came first. He took the next step as one of the top handful of point guards in the history of the game when he perfected his jump shot, understanding that occasionally the most unselfish thing he could do was take the shot.

Steve Nash is held to the bench last season by Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.

Tired of getting torched by Nash-to-Amare Stoudemire pick-and-rolls in the first three games of the 2004-05 Western Conference semifinals, Dallas backed off Nash. Dared him to shoot, Nash scored 48 points in Game 4, 34 in Game 5 and 39 in the series-clinching Game 6 victory. San Antonio pest Bruce Bowen followed Nash through picks in other playoff series and other avenues opened.

"I know when we game-planned against him, we always talked about you had to mix it up with him, because he was so smart," Lakers coach Byron Scott said Wednesday. "And he could beat you in so many different ways. In his earlier years, we tried to make him score more, because that is not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be your traditional point guard. But if needed, he could score, too. That was the great thing about Steve. Just a smaller version of Magic (Johnson)."

The Lakers did not expect Nash’s life to begin at 40, but they believed be had plenty left. When healthy this preseason, Nash was the "by far our best point guard," Scott added. "It hurt us as a team to lose him, no doubt about it. From a personal standpoint, we were all pretty affected by the fact he couldn’t play this season, because of the fact we know he does not want to end his career this way."

Nash is the Suns’ career leader in assists, 3-point field goals and free throw percentage. In his second coming, the Suns won 62, 61, 55, 54 and 54 games in eight seasons. He made others better by getting them the ball in advantageous situations.

Shawn Marion and Stoudemire did not fall off the face of the earth when they left the Suns. They just did not have Nash to get them easier looks. Just as Magic did for Greg Kelser.

Veteran Lakers guard Ronnie Price, who will get more of a chance to play because of Nash’s injury, played with the Suns in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, when the Suns finished 33-33. He saw Nash do things he could not believe.

"Some of the passes that I saw in practice, that people would never get a chance to see," Price said.

"Like, ‘Oh, wow, he just made a left-hand, full-court bounce pass and put spin on the ball to where the defender would miss but it would bounce correctly to the guy running the lane.’ Stuff like that. He’s just special."

Lakers forward Jordan Hill, who occasionally made it to Phoenix to catch Suns’ games playing for the Arizona Wildcats, said Nash was getting to the rim as well as he ever had this preseason.

"He wasn’t the quickest guard out there, but his mind was quick. His eyes were quick," Hill said. "He could handle the ball and he just knows how to break the defense down. He slows it down. He doesn’t just go and make moves. He slows it down to see what he has and see what the defense has for him and takes advantage of it."

Suns guard Goran Dragic, who has developed into a "two" guard with Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas playing the point with the Suns, was a reserve point guard behind Nash in his first 2-1/2 seasons in the NBA. Nash was more than a teammate then.

"He was my mentor," Dragic said. "He helped me a lot. I was a lost kid from Europe, a different culture, didn’t speak English very well. It was tough because it is a different game. He was always there for me. He gave me good advice. He made the second year much easier for me."

Nash elevated the point guard position with his ability to extend a play, often keeping his dribble from the top of the key to under the basket to the wing and back out again. He used angles not normally seen to create scoring looks, sort of the way fellow Canadian Wayne Gretzky did in the NHL.

"Steve took the John Stockton, Jason Kidd pass-first point guard to another level because he was so efficient the way he shot the ball and the way he used his angles on the floor. I don’t we’ve really seen too many point guards control the pick-and-roll scenario the way Steve did," Price said.

"And he gave a lot of guards coming up watching Steve a lot of hope that you don’t have to be Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose to be a great point guard in this league. We can’t make up for the loss of Steve Nash. Steve is Steve. There will never be another Steve. That’s just the truth."

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