Suns take important step in playoff trek

PHOENIX — Thanks to flawless work in a national ad campaign, we know Steve Nash is comfortable in his own skin.

And, thanks to his slick passing performance in Sunday’s 92-75 over the New Orleans Hornets, we also know he’s still comfy in a Phoenix Suns uniform.

After last Thursday’s mildly controversial, Dove-promoted spin around the heavyweight sports-talk circuit, a few conclusion-jumping observers may have decided the Suns point guard was ready to be fitted for another jersey. But on a night when the Houston Rockets coughed up a lead in Indiana and lost to the Pacers, Nash used 14 assists to help his plucky teammates continue their chase for a playoff spot.

The 10th-seeded Suns now are 1 1/2 games behind the eighth-seeded Rockets in what has been an inch-by-inch struggle to make up ground.

“It’s exciting,” Nash said of attempting to reel in the teams ahead of them, “and we’ve got to make the most of the opportunity.”

On Sunday, they had the chance to beat up on the conference’s worst team.

With a three-day break following their loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the refreshed Suns were taking on a Hornets squad that was 13-39 coming in and was playing without Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry and (still) Eric Gordon.

Although it wasn’t artistic, the Suns had their moments. Those included 10 first-half points from backup center Robin Lopez on his 24th birthday and a third-quarter-closing 3-point bomb from Josh Childress.

Nash spent part of Sunday evening dancing on the thin line between rest and rust.

“You’re conditioned to play every other night … after three days off, it’s tough to get going,” he said. “I’m glad we’ve got one out of the way, because they’re going to come fast and furious.”

Now 26-26, the Suns are skipping into a road trip that offers three games over four nights. The opener comes Tuesday in Sacramento against the lottery-bound Kings. But their dates for Wednesday and Friday — the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, respectively — are two of the teams the Suns have been chasing in their quest to reach the postseason.
“It’s going to be a difficult stretch,” said Nash, who only had to squeeze off four shots and scored just four points against New Orleans. “We have to come to play every night to give ourselves a chance.”

Shannon Brown continued demonstrating his will to compete and provide some offensive punch for the Suns’ first unit. Brown, who scored a career-high 32 points in last week’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, knocked in 16 points, going 6 for 11 from the field.

“We knew they were on the road trip,” Brown said of the Hornets, who lost Saturday to the Lakers in L.A., “and they played … this was like their fourth game in five days or something like that, so we knew they were a little bit tired. We just wanted to come out, jump on them and keep them down.”

Jared Dudley typically doesn’t do much jumping, but he’s hopped over to small forward in Grant Hill’s absence, with Brown stepping in at shooting guard. Against New Orleans, Dudley went 9 for 16, finished with 21 points and snagged 7 rebounds.

“It was a must-win,” Dudley said. “This is a team (Hornets) that’s been struggling all year. We had to come out here and get the win … we’re at home, fighting for the playoffs. We see Houston losing, Utah’s been losing, so we’ve got to keep it going.”

In the competitive Western Conference, there’s little room for the odd clunker game with only 14 remaining. At the end of this week’s journey, the Suns play the Lakers on Saturday at US Airways Center — and then the fun really begins. The following Monday, the Suns begin a four-game, six-night tour of (in order) Minnesota, Memphis, Houston and San Antonio.

“We know that we’re going to have to play well,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said, “and we’re going to have games that we have to win, and a lot of those games are going to be on the road. For us, this is our first playoff game, and we get on a plane and fly to Sacramento and that will be our next playoff game.

“I think that’s the way we have to approach it.”