LOS ANGELES -- Phoenix understood why Steve Nash left as a free agent last summer -- he is turning 39 next week, he is still without a championship and the Suns are in the first phase of a long rebuild -- but it was harder to reconcile why, of all the places in the basketball world, he had to go there. The Suns hate the Lakers the way the Lakers hate the Celtics, and after spoiling so many of their springs, the Lakers went about stealing their star point guard, their former coach and their breakneck offense.
If Phoenix held any of the bitterness for Nash that Cleveland does for LeBron James and Denver for Carmelo Anthony and Orlando for Dwight Howard, the city would be savoring its opportunity for vengeance. Nash returns to Phoenix on Wednesday night scoring fewer points than at any time in this millennium, dishing out fewer assists than at any time since he left Dallas and playing off the ball for the first time since he partnered with Jason Kidd. His record with the Lakers through 45 games, 20-25, is three games worse than it was with the Suns last season.
But as much as the Suns may despise the Lakers, and take pleasure in their collective woes, their love affair with Nash will never wane, no matter what he did to jeopardize it. He has taken several trips to Phoenix this season to visit his children, encountering fans at the airport and on the street. "They're overwhelmingly supportive and thankful," he said. He will not be treated like Ray Allen, who left the Celtics for a title shot with the Heat, even though he is a lot like Ray Allen, leaving the Suns for a title shot with the Lakers. Nash is expecting a mixed reception at US Airways Center, but chances are he will be cheered as loud as ever, and the Lakers booed as loud as ever. Phoenix will be able to distinguish between its hero and its rival, even if they are currently one in the same.
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"Standing ovation, for sure," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "No question."
Of course, this assumes that the home crowd will be able to recognize Nash, despite the short hair, the purple jersey and the new position. For the past three games, Bryant has been playing what amounts to point guard, averaging 13 assists with only 16.3 points. Nash has been more of a shooting guard, averaging 14.6 points with only four assists. The Lakers have won all three games, and when they were in danger Tuesday night, Nash put the Hornets away with a late three-pointer. So much for the Lakers hiring Mike D'Antoni so Nash could run high pick-and-roll on every possession.
"We don't have a system," D'Antoni said. "The system is we play basketball. Move the ball, play hard, play defense and when you're open shoot it."
The Lakers may look like an All-Star team, but with the endless rhetoric about sharing and effort, they sound more like a 7-and-under outfit. When asked what pleased him during their current spurt, D'Antoni cited "team unity" and "spirit." The Lakers are starting from scratch, with the belief that if they keep trying new recipes, they will eventually find the right one. In a league that advises players to stick with their specialties, it is hard to imagine the Lakers will reach their full potential if they don't maximize Nash's ball-handling ability, as well as Bryant's thirst for points. But by turning Bryant into a passer, the Lakers are moving the ball better than they have all season, which was the point of D'Antoni's whole offense in the first place.
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"There's no way you wouldn't want to play this way," D'Antoni said. "You can see it in their faces, in their body language. It's too bad it's come so late, but better late than never."
The change started in the backcourt, with the willingness of Bryant and Nash to essentially swap roles. Bryant has piled up more assists than in any three-game stretch of his career, prompting Nash to compare him to Magic Johnson and speculate that teammates have become more invested as a result. The Lakers can't know for sure if Bryant will sustain such selflessness, but he suddenly believes he can pass them to the playoffs, after gunning his way through the first two-and-a-half months.
"When I focus on something, I become obsessed with it," Bryant said. "I have to be perfect at it."
He was asked if he has become obsessed with his playmaking duties. "Can you tell?" he replied.
The Lakers will know soon if they have turned the elusive corner or hit the final dead end. They left Tuesday night for a seven-game road trip, having lost seven road games in a row, with the usual out-of-whack expectations. "There's no reason we don't win every game," D'Antoni said. The Lakers start in Phoenix, where Nash admitted he will be both nervous and nostalgic, bracing for a flood of friends and memories. He will be confronted by tens of thousands who recognize why he left, but wonder why he left for a 20-25 sack of hype. The reason, strange as it may sound, remains the same as it was in July. Despite the Lakers' many shortcomings, they still give Nash the clearest shot at contention, even if they barely end up a No. 8 seed.