As the waning minutes ticked away in a game possibly slipping out of their fingers, Lakers guard Steve Nash gathered his teammates together.
He pointed to his temple and reiterated one simple message.
“Use your head,” said Nash as he tapped onto it.
Not everyone listened to it just then. Lakers center Dwight Howard stood off to the side expressing frustration with an official. But for the second consecutive game since returning a leg injury that sidelined him for the past 24 games, Nash’s calming presence soothed the Lakers enough to secure what many on the team considered its best accomplishment yet.
The Lakers’ 100-94 victory Tuesday over the New York Knicks at Staples Center marked the team’s fifth consecutive win, the third in which the game came down to the final moments. The effort provided respectability to an otherwise dismal 5-9 mark in the Lakers’ 14 consecutive Christmas Day appearances. Nash’s contributions reflected both his numbers (16 points, 11 assists) and on-court presence.
“Steve controlled the game toward the end. It’s invaluable,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A point guard like him has that respect, a lot of that is credibility he’s built up over the years and he’s good. It puts everything in perspective and calms everyone down and gives you a chance every night.”
Kobe Bryant, of course, headlined that effort by scoring 34 points on 14 of 24 shooting, marking his ninth consecutive game he’s posted at least 30 points. Metta World Peace provided both consistency on offense (20 points on 6 of 11 shooting) and enough defensive aggressiveness to make Carmelo Anthony work hard for his 34 points on 13 of 23 shooting.
But Nash became the main guy orchestrating the Lakers’ collective effort.
He made a step-back jumper that gave the Lakers a 96-91 lead with 1:47 remaining, a play that looked familiar to a one he made that secured the Lakers’ overtime win Saturday over the Golden State Warriors. Nash set up Howard and Pau Gasol inside on plays that set both of them up on successful free throw attempts. In the final minute, Nash set up a play for Gasol at the top of the key, resulting in a drive down the lane for a dunk.
“Especially at the end of games, you have to make the right play,” Nash said. “It’s great when everyone gets a chance and you can spread it around and make the defense a little insecure. But that was just happenstance.”
It’s hardly a coincidence, though, that the Lakers look more comfortable and fluid under Nash’s direction.
The Lakers fought seven lead changes and 10 ties by featuring five players in double figures. The Lakers committed only 11 turnovers and held New York to eight fast-break points. The organization made it easier for Dwight Howard to complement his 14-point, 12 rebound effort with a strong defensive presence that entailed anchoring a defensive unit that held New York to 16 fourth-quarter points on 37.5 percent shooting.
When Nash remained sidelined for 24 games because of a fractured left leg, Bryant often carried the burden with mixed results. Despite his prolific play, Bryant’s last field goal came at the 7:01 mark of the fourth quarter. Nash directed everyone else into taking the load.
“Everybody on the floor is playing together,” said Gasol, who posted 13 points and eight rebounds. “We’re finally getting somewhere, we’re getting closer to the place that we want to be and the team we want to be.”