MINNEAPOLIS – The Lakers’ depressing state couldn’t wipe away Steve Nash’s smile.
The relative inconsequence that his return from a three-month absence made in the Lakers’ 109-99 loss Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday at Target Center couldn’t take away his joy. And even if Nash made himself vulnerable toward further nerve irritation in his back, Nash reported that his first appearance after missing the past 39 contests hardly yielded further damage.
So much that Nash reported with plenty of enthusiasm, “this is about as good as I felt this season.”
The Lakers 39-year-old point guard referred to his back, showing it could finally withstand the pounding of an NBA game after working out twice a day for the past 10 months to improve his postural stability. But he also could’ve referred to his play in Minnesota where he posted seven points and nine assists in 25 minutes. Nash’s description also applied to his state of mind. Though he will turn 40 on Friday and has played 18 NBA seasons en route to a Hall of Fame induction, Nash conceded “part of me feels like a kid and a rookie that got to play in the NBA” and relished playing with newcomers Ryan Kelly and Manny Harris.
“I feel a bit selfish in that we lost, but I just felt great to play in the NBA again and be out there with my teammates,” Nash said. “Obviously the game didn’t go as we hoped. But personally, it was cool for me to be out there.”
If the Lakers are looking for a feel-good story in an otherwise depressing season, this is it. When the Lakers talk about still wanting to play for pride despite facing near impossibility to make the playoffs, Nash’s story serves as the perfect example. Anytime the Lakers talk about needing to maintain a professional and positive attitude amid the never-ending injuries and the persistent losing, they can look to Nash and try to emulate how he handled his struggles.
“If a teammate can recognize how much time I’m putting in or inspire them to pick it up a little bit, that’s great,” Nash said. “But I had no choice. I wouldn’t be here tonight if I didn’t stay the course and be extremely diligent and work out twice a day every day for a lot of days. There were times I wondered why. But to get the chance to get out there and play in the NBA again makes it all worth it.”
Once Nash took the court, he wasted no time showing glimpses on what made him one of the NBA’s best point guards of this past generation and the fourth all-time leader in assists.
Nash opened the game’s first minute hitting a 16-footer. He threw a half-court lob to Wesley Johnson. Nash ran pick-and-rolls. He high-fived teammates any chance he could.
“He looked very comfortable. It wasn’t bad,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I thought he competed. We have to have everybody compete that way.”
Nash competed so well that D’Antoni broke his pledge only to play him in 5-to-8 minute bursts to open the first and second half. Instead, Nash played 25 minutes and played in the second quarter before sitting out the final period.
“I told him I’d rather keep playing than sit basically for 45 minutes and try to warm up my body up at halftime,” Nash said. “It was good. There’s nothing like playing the game. I need to really build up that conditioning and capacity.”
D’Antoni will still to sit Nash tonight against Cleveland, as part of his strategy to conserve him on the second night of back-to-backs. That also coincides with Jordan Farmar returning for the first time since nursing a torn left hamstring for the past five weeks.
But the outlook on Nash no longer appears as dicey as earlier this season.
He appeared in only six games, averaging 6.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting and 4.8 assists while experiencing plenty of ailments in his back during training camp.
“There was some nerves and apprehension before the game, not knowing where my body would be to start the game and what standard it would be at to play in an actual NBA game after a few practices in 2 1/2 months,” Nash said. “It’s a pretty limited preseason and where I was never really right.”
Yet, Nash didn’t quit.
After spending most of last offseason in Vancouver, Canada with his personal trainer Rick Celebrini to correct his back issues, Nash returned there four different times this season in hopes the persistence would finally pay off. A long three months later, it did. Celebrini then told this newspaper that he’d “run through a wall” for Nash because of his unyielding professionalism and work ethic.
“I can never repay him enough for what he’s done for me throughout my career,” Nash said. “You don’t know if you get a chance again. For him to sacrifice a lot for me, he’s given me a lot of opportunity to play in the NBA again. I’m pretty fortunate for that relationship.”
What that leads to remains anyone’s guess.
The Lakers could still waive Nash this offseason via the stretch provision so they can stretch out the $10 million they owe him through three years. Such a strategy would ensure only $3 million being counted against the salary cap annually. Nash still conceded feeling “some pain and discomfort,” but sounded optimistic it won’t limit his play. With the Lakers losing seven consecutive games, allowing at least 100 points in 15 consecutive contests and the team’s injury list continuously evolving, Nash’s return could amount to nothing more than symbolizing the musicians on the sinking Titanic.
But Nash doesn’t think that way, which partly explains how he returned in the first place.
“I don’t want this to sound selfish at all, but I’m just thrilled that I played in one game,” Nash said. “Hopefully that leads to two. Hopefully two leads to three. My motto, as sad it sounds, has been to survive the day. If I can survive and advance, I have a chance to play again and I have a chance to build some conditioning and capacity with my back and hopefully some confidence with my game.”
“If that happens, that’ll be pretty cool. I get to keep on playing and fighting with these guys. But nothing is guaranteed. I’ll stay the course, keep battling and try to enjoy it as much as I can. I realize now what I may not have realized is younger is that it doesn’t last forever It gives me a chance to keep playing while I can.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com