LOS ANGELES — By all accounts, the Lakers a year ago appeared to have a championship future.
Now they’re the place for case studies in basketball mortality.
Test subject No. 10’s data hasn’t gotten quite the attention as test subject No. 24’s, and that’s fair enough: Steve Nash was out there on the Staples Center court Sunday night while Kobe Bryant was still off working that graveyard shift, away in Germany to perk up his right knee while not yet having emerged from the darkness of that left Achilles tear.
But the hypothesis that Nash still has game to give after being in so much pain and missing so many games last season hasn’t been proved either.
Nash played in his first exhibition game Sunday night and wasn’t nearly all there, putting up a Derek Fisher-like scoreless stat line in a mostly uneven outing—a few of the fancy old Nash passes notwithstanding.
Nash’s best plays—besides that lefty, behind-the-back flip for Steve Blake’s three-pointer—were two beautiful embellishments to sell the illegal contact from Denver’s screening big men.
On two awkward turnovers committed against the double-teams he has so lickety-split the past decade and a half, Nash argued to veteran referee Bill Spooner that Denver’s defenders pushed him off balance. Nash got away with a fistful of Ty Lawson’s jersey at the other end on one no-call too.
After Nash left the game in the third quarter, he passed the Lakers bench and headed straight into the locker room. He never did rejoin his teammates on the court. Instead, he went searching for ice and found the cold tub that he dedicated himself to long before Bryant began posting his Twitter photos braving ice baths.
You’d think Nash would be the sort to stick with his guys on the bench. Yet even if you are renowned as the greatest teammate ever, when facing basketball mortality, you’d better prioritize those brittle bones.
Many are waiting to see what Nash has left come February and his 40th birthday. The truth is that the reaper already did a few pop-bys at Nash’s place early in the offseason, checking on that so-slow-to-heal nerve traveling from Nash’s troublesome back to his right hamstring.
“There were times this summer, early in the summer, where I wasn’t sure,” Nash said late Sunday night, adding the sort of chuckle that isn’t meant to convey any sort of humor. “And to feel the way I do right now at 39, to be chasing around Ty Lawson, is a blessing. So I’ve just got to get my game going and my rhythm back.”
Cups of organic Greek yogurt in hand for ultra-healthy snacking after he would leave the arena, Nash stood postgame and said it was “not bad” Sunday night: “First basketball game in five months—I’ll take it. I thought I was moving OK. I just need a few more weeks to get my rhythm and timing and to get a real feel for the group.”
Nash likes the group. After all the ego and Dwight Howard drama last season, Nash knows that much for sure, saying, “I’m really enjoying playing with this group.”
He has been playing with them since well before training camp began, wanting to use pickup games to learn his teammates’ tendencies and strengths in Mike D’Antoni’s system. It has been a good vibe.
Then there’s also the fundamental enjoyment of not being dead.
“Overcame a lot this summer,” Nash said.
Yes, Nash still has a ways to go. But where Nash is now, Bryant hasn’t even gotten.
Bryant, 35, remains uniquely determined, newly posting the image of a bear’s face as his Twitter avatar.
Bryant a couple times referenced Jay-Z’s “On the Rock (Remix)” lyrics: “You see me in a fight with the bear, pray for the bear.” Bryant brought it up in his famous Facebook manifesto late the night he tore the Achilles, also writing in April: “We don’t quit, we don’t cower, we don’t run. We endure and conquer.”
Bryant first mentioned the “pray for the bear” line in a Twitter post in January, sharing his escape to late-night piano playing plus a gym workout to refocus on winning. The Lakers had lost that night in Chicago, where Pau Gasol had been demoted from the starting unit and Howard walked around the postgame locker room to show teammates and reporters a stat sheet to dwell on how few shot attempts he got.
Nash had played quite well that night in Chicago: 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, six assists and two turnovers. In what Nash calls the toughest of his 17 NBA seasons—“highest expectations,” he explains—he had plenty of good games despite the battered chemistry and the broken leg.
If you know Nash, though, you know he’s not about good games.
He’s about great teamwork.
And he remains driven to bring that to the Lakers.
If Nash can, especially after all those not-so-distant mornings waking up and worrying that his body just wasn’t feeling any better, it will be one of his sweetest seasons.
As sweet as honey might taste after staring the bear in the face.
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.