After missing 24 games, Steve Nash finally returned to the Lakers' lineup last Saturday night and, believe it or not, was better than anticipated.
The Santa Clara product hardly had a huge statistical output with his 12 points and nine assists on 5-for-8 field-goal shooting, but do not let the box score fool you: he was just what the purple and gold needed.
In a contest that the Lakers could have simply mailed in based on a multitude of factors, the team chose to hang in tough and show their mental toughness.
Dwight Howard spent the majority of the contest glued to the bench because of foul trouble, Pau Gasol was less than stellar from the field and even coughed up the ball on a few occasions and Kobe Bryant had one of his worst shooting games on the season by virtue of the sheer amount of shots he put up to get his 34 points.
In addition, the game was called quite tightly by the officials, which hurt the Lakers in some respects as Howard and Bryant combined to finish the contest with a total of 11 fouls.
And yet, despite facing a 13-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, the Lakers kept their composure and played through all these issues to pull out an exciting game in overtime.
Howard picked up his fifth foul at the start of the fourth quarter. Mike D’Antoni decided to ride his big man and was rewarded for it as he scored a few times and helped his team clean up the backboards.
The Lakers also got some help from Jordan Hill, who he came in and played big with 14 points and seven rebounds.
The bench performer of the night for the Lakers, mind you, was Metta World Peace, and it wasn’t close. He scored in the paint as well as from the perimeter and even hit a killer baseline three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a two-point lead, which was erased seconds later by a Jarrett Jack jumper off the dribble.
And yet, for all of these contributions, it’s tough to argue that the Lakers would have won this contest without the presence of Canada’s favorite son.
For all the talk about his lack of condition due to his injured leg, Kid Canada played a whopping 40 minutes and never looked exhausted.
He chased Klay Thompson here and there through screens, fought hard to front him down on the low block and helped in some respects keep the sharpshooter off rhythm, which resulted in a 6-for-16 shooting night.
Nash was always in control throughout the contest, but his fourth quarter might be the most underrated performance by a star/superstar this season.
With the Golden State Warriors still in control of the game, Nash set a back screen for Kobe that got him free for an uncontested dunk off a pass from Dwight Howard at the elbow. The former two-time league MVP wasn’t done though; on the following possession he set a cross screen for Jodie Meeks that got him free for a basket right in the paint.
This happened as the Lakers were getting stops to cut into the Warriors’ lead.
The ever clever Nash even set up an alley-oop for Dwight Howard by setting a solid back screen right in the paint on Festus Ezeli. That resulted in a perfectly timed pass by Gasol that connected with a soaring Dwight Howard. Later in the quarter, the former Suns player found Howard on a slip screen, which resulted in a shooting foul with D12 hitting both free-throw attempts.
And finally, the first-year Laker had two hockey assists (passes that set up an assist) late in the fourth quarter that helped the Lakers take the lead and eventually go into overtime and win the game.
Heck, the purple and gold’s starting point guard hit a huge three-pointer in the fourth quarter off a Bryant a double-team, and also hit a huge, contested jumper in the paint in overtime to give the Lakers a three-point lead that eventually stood as the winning margin.
Put it all together and Steve Nash was essential to the Los Angeles Lakers comeback, but he did something far more important that may not have been obvious to all: he made the game fun.
It sounds cliché and perhaps even corny on some level, but the fact that Mike D’Antoni didn’t have to exclusively rely on Bryant’s flair for the dramatic against the Dubs turned to be a huge morale builder for the unit as a whole.
The Lakers’ team play made them a little unpredictable and it also made them play like, well, a basketball team.
The players cut to the hoop harder, boxed out, fought for position and played with a great level of urgency as well as energy. Throughout the fourth quarter and overtime, the Lakers’ collective enthusiasm was incredibly obvious, and there were several shots of Bryant smiling and high-fiving Nash after a great play.
During Kid Canada’s absence, the offense often looked dull and lifeless late in fourth quarters and the same is true for the defense.
Mind you, with Nash bringing back a much more team-oriented offense late in the game against Golden State, the whole team had a pep in their step despite playing on the road.
It’s only been one game, but Mike D’Antoni seems awfully prophetic at this time.
What do you know, Steve Nash is all kinds of important.