Nash's hard late-career adjustment
A hummingbird trapped in a plastic bag.
That's how Grant Hill characterized Phoenix teammate Steve Nash in the Suns' ongoing and challenging transition from the best offensive show in the NBA to a team determined to slow down, pound it inside and man up defensively in ways that traditionally lead to more postseason success. Nash, as the triggerman and metronome of the Suns' formerly frenzied attack, has been just what Hill described on several nights so far this season: vibrating with energy but stuck in second gear. All revved up with nowhere to go. Greyhound on a leash.
"It's a change for all of us, but for him most important, because he's the quarterback,'' Hill said after Phoenix's methodical 110-102 victory at Minnesota the other night. "It is tough. At times, it's like a hummingbird trapped in a plastic bag.''
That's one ornithological image. Canary in a coal mine is another, because if this doesn't work -- this Steve Kerr-inspired, Terry Porter-instructed transformation of the Suns -- Nash will be an early casualty. "Steve Nash'' the concept, the theory, the idea will be, anyway.
Last Friday against Miami, Nash got a glimpse of what the rest of us have seen too often this season -- he sat and watched a Suns team that bore little resemblance to the ones we tracked so eagerly in recent years. Nash's bruised right thigh meant that Phoenix faced the Heat without its starting point guard and one of the top ball handlers in the NBA, so the turnovers (five in the first 10 possessions) that dug the Suns an immediate and inescapable hole en route to their 107-92 drubbing really weren't surprising. But that's how things have gone so far even with Nash involved. Too many turnovers. Not enough scoring. Not enough fun.
Don't misunderstand. The guy who directed the attack two nights earlier in Minneapolis, up to and beyond the point at which Timberwolves rookie Kevin Love's knee painfully met his thigh, was a pretty good little player. He scored 20 points, passed for six assists, was flawless in eight attempts from the foul line and snuffed any Wolves notions about a comeback with eight points and a steal in the final four minutes. But he wasn't Gretzky-like in his creativity, he wasn't in perpetual motion, he wasn't a difference-maker who would ever win one MVP award much less two. He wasn't, in short, Steve Nash.
"Yeah. It's a little different,'' Nash said afterward. "I'm just trying to feel my way out, and feel my way into it and see how I can be effective and help the team and take my share of the responsibility.''
Nash has sounded ambivalent like that after other games, too, as the Suns feel their way through the early stages of 2008-09 as two, two, two teams in one. "We have the Shaq team and we have the non-Shaq team [when O'Neal sits out certain games to rest],'' said Porter, hired by Kerr over the summer to shore up all those areas -- defense, post play, bench use -- that tended to get neglected when Mike D'Antoni was working the Suns' sideline. D'Antoni had O'Neal dumped into his lap last February; Porter signed on with eyes wide open to Kerr's priorities.
"Obviously, with Shaq, you try to establish an inside game a little bit. When he's not around, we try to pick up the tempo a little bit more,'' Porter said. "I don't think there's a coach in the league who would say, 'If I have a chance to get a Shaq, a Patrick [Ewing], an Hakeem [Olajuwon] ...' -- those types of throwback centers who you know you can get the ball to, 15-20 touches -- they'd all want 'em. I don't think there's any point guard, either, who wouldn't want to take 'em. It's just going to open your game up so much.''
Truth be told, the game Phoenix won at Minnesota last week is one it might have lost pre-Shaq, the way Al Jefferson abused the Suns' frontcourt last season (30.5 points a game in four matchups). This time, O'Neal was a counterweight, offsetting Big Al's big numbers (28 points, 17 rebounds) with some of his own (18, 10 and three blocks).
Still, Nash was playing like he had a Bluetooth conversation in one ear, breaking naturally down court and then pulling up to either wait for the Diesel or to run a traditional set. The Suns' mandate from D'Antoni -- "seven seconds or less'' -- used to mean time run off the shot clock before a Phoenix player hoisted a shot. Now it more often means time left. The team's offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 108.9 is its lowest since 2003-04 (though that still ranks eighth in the NBA), and its turnover rate of 18.2 is the NBA's worst. Despite ESPN analyst Jon Barry's pronouncements during the Miami game that this transition "shouldn't be so hard,'' the Suns are finding it to be all that and more.
"It's a work in progress,'' said Nash, whose scoring (15.1 points) and passing (8.1 assists) stats are at five- and six-year lows, respectively. "We come in, we spend a lot of time working on our weaknesses. We spend a lot of time working on our defense, a lot of time on our half-court offense. So we've lost a lot of what we used to do. It's not like a switch where we can just turn it back on. We've got to work toward that. Terry wants us to run again. He wanted us to work on our weaknesses and now find the balance. So it is a big transition for us. Now I think we're getting a little of the rhythm back and playing both ways and kind of being two teams within the team.''
At 34, there's an old-dog, new-tricks whiff to this for Nash, who is making one of the biggest late-career adjustments of any NBA superstar ever. Wilt Chamberlain throttled back his scoring late in his career with the Lakers, Tiny Archibald went from a stats slot machine with the Kings to a system guard with the Celtics, and three-time scoring leader Bob McAdoo saw his shots-per-minute rate drop by 40 percent as a Lakers reserve. Nash still has the keys to Phoenix's offense, but what he's driving now is a lot more hybrid than high octane. The Suns' point production (100.1) is the lowest for a Nash-led team since 2000-01.
"It's a bit different,'' Porter said. "I think in the big picture it's helped him at times, not to get run down at the end, running that type of stuff for all 48 minutes. Now he kind of plays a little bit, 15-20 minutes, of just half court. We still do try to run, when we get stops and obviously off of steals. But with Shaq, the game is different. It does slow down a little bit from what he's accustomed to.''
There should be at least one date circled on Nash's calendar this season. The 2009 NBA All-Star Game, with all the offense of a classic Suns game and defense equally reminiscent, is set for Feb. 15, right there at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix. Barring injury, Nash is a good bet to be there (he's made six of the past seven for the Western Conference).
Consider if hope for the hummingbird, unless he and his plastic bag run completely out of air by then.