Nash’s return could turn Lakers around

OAKLAND — The most important player on the Los Angeles Lakers’ star-studded team sat wrapped in a black robe at his locker after the game, his body hurting, his words at times whispered, the exhaustion emanating from him in waves. He’d just returned from seven weeks off with a leg injury and somehow managed to play 41 dazzling minutes and use them to spin the Lakers into an entirely new team.

“We needed it,” Steve Nash said of the Lakers’ rousing 118-115 comeback and overtime win over the Golden State Warriors. “We need to build every day. And we needed something to build on.”

What they needed, it turned out, was Steve Nash himself.

That idea that Nash’s return wouldn’t by itself prove enough to reverse the Lakers’ 2012 doldrums? Dismiss it. For one night, at least, he made a notion that had seemed like the wishful thinking of embattled head coach Mike D’Antoni look pretty damn real.

The man Kobe Bryant called a great point guard after the win, the leader D’Antoni labeled, simply and accurately, a “winner,” and the missing ingredient Dwight Howard curiously dodged praising after his own tough outing was everything every one of them needed him to be. Nash turned a flood of faults, many belonging to those three men, into the team’s best win of the season.

It came with a mix of awe and delighted surprise to sit in the stands and watch Nash return and change everything. Watching him work alchemy on the Lakers prompted that rare feeling that comes with watching an all-time great who still has it at an age — 38 — that reminds you his magic is fleeting, that the greatness unrolling before your eyes is special in part because it cannot go on forever.

That was what bubbled across the brain as Nash hit huge shots down the stretch, including a 14-footer with 36 seconds left in overtime that sealed it, as he made incredible passes, as he turned the pick and roll into an art form, as he created space for a team suddenly alive with confidence, as he undercut a Warriors team that is very, very good.

Nash finished with 12 points and nine assists in a game in which his numbers couldn’t do justice to his impact.

“I think that we’re a completely different team with him out there,” D’Antoni said.

Most important for the Lakers, Nash obscured the glaring issues that before his return had sunk them, had filled the locker room with doubt and had cast a shadow over D’Antoni’s leadership.

Bryant’s mind-boggling shot selection? He was 16-of-41 — 41! — but it didn’t matter.  Howard’s lackluster competitive spirit, highlighted by the fact he played just 28 minutes during an overtime game because he picked up five early fouls and finished with just 11 points and six rebounds? An afterthought. That porous defense that has marked D’Antoni’s brief L.A. tenure much more than his up-tempo offense? No big thing.

Even Howard’s surly mood after the game, and what it does or does not portend about his ability to accept a sometimes-diminished role or diminished nights if the team wins big games, can wait for another time.

The fact is, the Lakers needed this win as much as they needed to look, finally, like the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We played hard,” said Bryant, who had 34 points.

“That’s the thing we talked about during our time off. Dwight had four or five fouls at the time. Pau had four or five fouls. We weren’t playing particularly well. I wasn’t shooting the ball well. We just said that we had to go harder. It didn’t matter what the challenge was. We just had to go harder, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Harder meant coming back from a 14-point deficit early in the fourth quarter. It meant taking everything the battle-tested and still 18-10 Warriors threw at them. Harder meant seven lead changes in the fourth quarter, it meant Kobe scoring seven of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime, it meant Nash hitting a huge three with 1:46 left in the fourth-quarter to give the Lakers a lead and Nash using a pick and roll to get the ball to Howard, who got it to an open World Metta Peace with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter to again take a lead.

It meant, as the Warriors answered every barrage, finally seeing a Lakers team able to step up to a big moment against a very good team and get it done.

Nash, for his part, said there’s more to it than him.

“If we become a great team, that’s not down to me,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s not down to me either.”

A week ago I would have agreed with him. Today?

Today, having seen him in action, I’m not so sure.

There are a ton of problems and issues that the Lakers will have to work out to get where they want to go. But maybe Steve Nash really is the answer to solving them and getting there.

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