The concerns kept popping into Mike D’Antoni’s head even as he saw Steve Nash show the signs of greatness that solidified him as a two-time MVP, the fourth all-time leader in assists and pending candidate for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Nash endlessly provided dazzling plays with swift passes and timely shots. But how long could he withstand his injury-riddled 40-year-old body? Nash looked mobile enough to play through a sprained left ankle that required treatment. But how long before that ankle became yet another ailment that would set back his recovery? Nash kept insisting he felt fine. But how much did those words reflect more of his competitive spirit than an actual medical diagnosis?
After repeatedly peppering Nash throughout the game about his health, D’Antoni eventually cracked something that both showed his sarcasm and his affection for a player that once consistently revitalized his fast-paced, perimeter-oriented offense with the Phoenix Suns.
Recalled D’Antoni: ‘Well, I guess when you just keel over we’ll just cart him off and know that we have to substitute.’”
Yet, such a scenario never unfolded as Nash posted his first double double of the season, a 10-point and 10-assist effort in only 21 minutes providing a bright spot in the Lakers’ 124-112 loss Tuesday to the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center.
“The key for me is if I’m moving well, I know I can play the game at a high level and I felt good tonight,” Nash said while sitting down by his locker stall with an electronic stimulation machine attached to his ankle. “If I’m moving well, good things I think can happen out there.”
Nash did not exactly move well after the game.
He spent a fair amount of time in the training room following the game to receive treatment. Nash was escorted on a cart to the Staples Center loading dock so he could hop on the team bus en route to their overnight flight for the Lakers’ (25-49) game on Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings (26-48) at Sleep Train Arena. He also ruled out playing in tonight’s game as part of the Lakers’ season-long strategy in sitting him out on back-to-back situations.
But Nash has offered hope that he could play out the final year of his $9.8 million contract next season with much a cleaner bill of health.
“It’s a barometer if nothing else to see where I am,” Nash said, “and how I recover and what I need to accomplish.”
It may have seemed hard to notice what Nash accomplished recently amid the never-ending unpredictability on when he will play. D’Antoni has also said he will shut Nash down should Jordan Farmar return next week as expected from right groin injury so the Lakers could fully assess how Farmar fits into their offseason plans. But ever since Nash has filled in for mop-up duty amid Farmar’s seven-game absence, the 40-year-old point guard has offered encouraging signs.
He has averaged nine assists in only 18.6 minutes per contest. Nash’s playmaking and fluidity has stayed remarkably efficient. His hustle appears uninhibited.
“He just plays smart. He’s done this in his sleep for 17 years or however long he has played,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a very very good basketball player. He’s battling Father Time. It’s a pretty good opponent.”
It sure is.
Even amid Nash providing the same sort of greatness he once exuded albeit in a much smaller sample size, each game yields an additional setback. Nash experienced more nerve pain following the Lakers’ loss two weeks ago in Washington that left him out for three more games. Nash did not report any more setbacks in the Lakers’ loss in Minnesota, but he skipped the Lakers’ win Sunday over Phoenix for precautionary reasons. It remains to be seen if Nash will play Friday against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center.
“When healthy, he’s a heck of a point guard,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “He makes plays and makes things easy for everybody else. I’m happy to see him do well. Unfortunately I think he’s struggling a little bit right now. Hopefully it goes away.”
But even when that has not happened, Nash still keeps figuring out a way.
“He’s old you think he can’t do anything,” Lakers forward Chris Kaman said. “He gets it done. Nash is probably the hardest worker we have on this team. He’s professional and very positive all year even when he wasn’t able to play. he’s battled through a lot of amazing things. Him being able to play now is special and it speaks leaps and bounds about his character and work ethic. He’s still a special player. There’s not a lot of players that come around that are like him.”
Yet, that hasn’t softened the call for Nash to retire because of the never-ending concerns about his injuries.
But the Lakers have said they will leave it up to Nash as to whether they will waive him via the stretch provision by Aug. 31, a maneuver that would cost them $3 million annually over the next three seasons. Nash has said he plans to play next season, in part for the love of the game and so he can make the money on his remaining deal. And even though plenty of uncertainty arises about his health, Nash currently enters this offseason on a much faster trajectory to recover than last year. Then, he limped into the summer with nerve damage permeating his back and hamstring. A year later, Nash has shown signs he can manage the pain, giving him a head start on trying to tackle the nerve damage even stronger.
“All the four or five of those games where I was moving well gives me a lot of optimism I can still play the game at a good level,” Nash said. “It’s a lot of fun to be moving freely out there. The next barometer there is whether I can sustain it. For me, it’s important to play a little more and evaluate where I am with where my game is and health is and what I need to do next summer.”
That left D’Antoni summing up Nash a different after all his concerns did not materialize as worse as he had anticipated.
Said D’Antoni: “At 40 years old, he still does an incredible job. He’s amazing.”