The stoic demeanor masked Steve Nash’s frustration. His graceful movement walking down a Staples Center hallway also camouflaged his pain.
But as he’s realized through a full offseason, a complete training camp and only two weeks into the regular season, no amount of work Nash has done thus far can cover up the persisting injuries that’s emerged all over his 39-year-old body.
He sat out the entire second half of the Lakers’ 113-80 loss Sunday to the Minnesota Timberwolves because of persisting back issues. Nash will then see back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins on Monday before deciding what to do next.
As he stood in a Staples Center hallway shortly after the Lakers’ loss, however, the early returns don’t sound pretty.
“You can call it the back. You can call it the nerves,” Nash said, referring to the feeling he still has in his surgically repaired left leg. “The pain in the hamstring. They’re all the same things. It gets a lot of convoluted. It’s basically the same thing.”
All that came to a standstill Sunday against Minnesota. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni noticed Nish limping as he labored for two points on three missed field-goal attempts, two free throws and three assists in 13 minutes. Nash then sat out the entire second half to receive treatment in the trainer’s room.
“I see his face. I’ve known him forever,” said D’Antoni, who also coached Nash with the Phoenix Suns from 2003 to 2008. “When he looks like that, you know he’s trying to battle through something. We just couldn’t do it. He was struggling physically, you could just see it on his face and that’s why I took him out and we shut him down more or less.”
That left Nash second-guessing himself for playing until D’Antoni yanked him out of the lineup.
“It was probably foolish on my part that I didn’t [ask out of the game],” Nash said.
Nash said he’s sensed increased pain in his back, right hamstring and nerve in his left leg “for a while now.” He didn’t offer specifics on his exact timeline. But he said he felt limited even before the Lakers’ 99-98 win last Thursday over Houston. Whether it stemmed from an adrenaline rush into playing Dwight Howard after he left the Lakers via free agency, knowing the magnitude of the game or both, Nash reported feeling fine enough to play that night.
Besides, Nash sat out the following day in the Lakers’ 96-85 loss last Friday to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the team’s season-long strategy in resting him on the second game of back-to-backs.
But with the 39-year-old guard handling overlapping injuries with his left ankle, stiff neck and quads throughout the past month, Father Time and Mother Nature have delivered a few jabs to throw Nash off balance. Nash also described feeling “a lot of wear and tear” after conceding he’s struggled maintaining what he’s called “postural stability” and “movement patterns,” two variables needed to avoid having additional pressure on his sensitive spine.
“I’m just trying to figure it out,” said Nash, who has only averaged 7.6 points on 27.9 percent shooting and 5.2 assists in 24.2 minutes through six games. “I’m trying to play through it, and at the same time, be smart and try to overcome what I can and see. It’s taken a bit of a turn for the worse. I’ll see the doctor and see what he advises.”
Still, the ever optimistic Nash revealed some insecurity.
“It’s tough. I hesitate to even talk about it now because I’m a little emotional,” Nash said. “It’s hurt. I really want to play and I really want to play the way I’m accustomed to playing. To be so limited is frustrating and not know where a cleanish bill of health is tough.”
And that’s why the Lakers’ locker room seemed somber for reasons beyond falling to a 3-5 record, allowing Minnesota to score a franchise-record 47 points in the first quarter and snapping their 22-game winning streak against the Timberwolves.
D’Antoni has already seen first hand the beauty that Nash plays the game. He instantly bolstered D’Antoni’s offense in Phoenix to thrust him into the coaching ranks. Nash ran the system with such proficiency that he earned two NBA league MVP awards in 2006 and 2007. Even during last season’s disaster, Nash climbed to fourth place on the NBA’s all-time leaders list in assists.
Now, D’Antoni has seen his once prized point guard trying to avoid becoming a shell of himself.
“It’s tough on him more than anybody,” D’Antoni said. “He wants in the worst way to be able to perform and have a good year. He’s doing everything he can do. When you watch him and watch him struggle, it’s not fun for anybody.”
As Nash’s teammates processed his latest injury, two feelings emerged.
They sounded the alarm on what Nash’s setback could mean for the big picture. After all, they saw how Nash missed a combined 32 games last season because of his fractured left left and his back and hamstring issues that have emerged once again.
“I’m concerned because he’s my teammate and a guy who can really help us,” Lakers center Pau Gasol said. “We need guys who can create shots for other people and make it easier for other guys. He’s a great playmaker. Unfortunately if you’re not healthy, no matter who you are, you won’t be able to do what you do.”
They also expressed appreciation for Nash’s persistence in fighting through his injuries.
Nash spent most of his offseason fully healing his back and hamstrings. He showed willingness toward the coaching staff for staying limited in training camp and on the second night of back-to-backs. Lakers forward Shawne Williams said Nash often lifts weights and receives treatments around other teammates to create a close atmosphere. Nash has also shown genuine excitement playing for the Lakers despite his diminished health and the team’s diminished expectations.
“He’s always professional. He’s playing through the pain that he has,” Lakers guard Steve Blake said. “He’s supporting us every way we can. We just know it’s tough on him. That’s all I can say. I just know I’m his teammate and I appreciate his effort and determination to play through the pain. I love him for it. We definitely need him out there.”
With all the mixed emotions surrounding him, Nash sounded eager to stop talking about his injury. But before he walked away, Nash thanked a handful of reporters who wished him a positive recovery.
Nash has maintained that outlook for so long and partly explains his NBA longevity for 18 years. But he knows those times don’t last forever. As Nash walked down a Staples Center hallway toward uncertainty, he can only hope his appointment on Monday doesn’t suggest that moment grows nearer.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org