Steve Nash discusses his future after playing what feels like his final game with the Suns

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The Suns played the Spurs in the team’s season finale on Wednesday, but the outcome of the game meant less than nothing to either of the participants. With the game taking place in Phoenix, the focus was entirely on Steve Nash, who is an unrestricted free agent heading into next season, and might very well have played his last game as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix was eliminated from the playoff picture the night before, losing a hard-fought game in Utah where the team was ultimately overmatched. Their fate was sealed, as was that of the visiting Spurs, who had already clinched the one seed in the West.

(The key members of this San Antonio team had no interest in even seeing this game in person; after a full morning practice, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker all caught a plane home to get some rest before the postseason begins.)

What hasn’t yet been determined, and likely won’t be for quite some time, is the team that Nash will be playing for at the beginning of next season. While he’s been as open and honest about his decision-making process as possible, even Nash himself doesn’t know if he’ll be back in Phoenix next season.

The sense, though, is that he won’t be.

Suns fans showed their appreciation for Nash at the beginning of the evening, giving him a huge, much-louder-than-normal cheer during the introduction of starting lineups. But their spontaneous chants for him late in the game were even more meaningful.

The Phoenix faithful began a loud, passionate “We want Steve!” chant with just over five minutes remaining in the game, after Nash had started and played the first eight minutes of the contest, and then the first nine minutes of the third quarter. He appeared to be done for the evening, but as the fans rose to their feet and the chants got louder, Nash eventually subbed in briefly to take a well-deserved curtain call.

After eight years with the franchise, he deserved it. And he was clearly touched by the fans’ gesture, as he spoke thoughtfully about it afterward.

“It was obviously amazing to get that type of reception and support,” Nash said. “It’s very special. It’s not something I asked for or imagined, and to get that type of spontaneous reaction … It’s authentic, the relationship that I thought we had. It really feels special and the fans have been phenomenal and it really meant a lot to me to play in a city like this for as long as I have to feel important to the fans and the community, I just feel like a very lucky guy.”

Nash wasn’t feeling particularly sentimental heading into Wednesday night’s finale — partly because he didn’t have time to think about it, and partly because that’s just not who he is.

“I must admit, I’m not the most sentimental person in the world,” he said. “It’s something I shy away from more than try to soak it up and get emotional. To be honest I really didn’t get a chance to think about it. If this were to be my last game, it’ll be a night I remember and it’ll be an important night for me, but I didn’t get a lot of moments to put that in perspective because we were playing for our lives last night. And coming back in the middle of the night and getting the kids from school and stuff like that, it’s not like you have a lot of time to try and sit around and put your career in perspective.”

Nash has maintained that the idea of returning to Phoenix next season is more than just being polite; it’s a legitimate option. It’s tough to envision, though, given how much the team relied on him to do it all this season, and yet still fell short of making it to the playoffs.

At 38 years of age, it’s no longer reasonable to rely on Nash to be the sole provider of offense for this or any team; he’s going to need some help. I asked Suns head coach Alvin Gentry if it was too much to ask of Nash at this point in his career to carry such a large burden, and he seemed to think that it was.

“You’re right, I don’t think you can ask him to do that,” Gentry said. “I don’t think you can ask him to make all the plays down the stretch, I don’t think you can ask him to be the guy to facilitate all the plays, or make the shot or anything like that. Obviously, he needs help. You can’t do it alone in this league; no one’s ever been able to do it alone, not even Michael Jordan. You have to have other guys that you can continuously count on.”

The Suns, as currently constructed, don’t have anyone who you can continuously count on. The roster needs some serious upgrades if the team is going to compete in the playoffs; among the glaring needs are a reliable scorer who can create their own shots and average in the neighborhood of 20 points per game from either the wing or the low post, and a legitimate big man who can dominate inside — either offensively or defensively. Because at the moment, the Suns have no one who can do that on either end of the floor.

Personnel will certainly be a factor for Nash in determining whether or not to stay in Phoenix, but coaching definitely won’t be. Gentry is a players’ coach and knows how to deal with veterans, and Nash had nothing but positive things to say about the job he did with the talent he was handed this season.

“I think Alvin was unbelievable this year,” Nash said. “Michael Redd was a late signing, he hadn’t played for two years, if I’m not mistaken. So other than Michael Redd, (Grant Hill) and I are the only guys who have really started, and have been NBA starters before. And there were quite a few new guys this year, too. So for Alvin to put all those pieces together, for all our flaws and faults, to put us together and when we were 12-19 not let us quit — because really, we were 12-19 and we didn’t have a lot of answers at that point, either. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get better at this that and the other,’ it was more like, ‘I’m not sure if we’re going to get better at any of this stuff.’ But he wouldn’t let us relent and he was phenomenal. I love playing for Alvin, I think he’s a great coach.”

That’s one thing the Suns have going for them, but there are too many factors going against them that lead you to believe that Nash has played his last game for the Phoenix franchise.

Nash himself is still non-committal, and truly seems open to returning to Phoenix if the pieces fall into place. But no relevant free agent is going to commit to the Suns without assurances that Nash will be back, and Nash won’t come back unless the talent level is upgraded significantly. So at this point, he can’t begin to predict his chances of re-signing in Phoenix.

“Honestly, I have no clue,” Nash said of his chances of staying with the Suns. “I couldn’t predict, I don’t know what the future holds at this point, and I’m actually OK with that. Now is the time to maybe get some distance from it, and try to find a clear perspective on where I am. Until I do that, I couldn’t put a number on it or take a guess on what the chances are that I’ll be back or not.”

Nash may not yet know what he wants. But the scene in Phoenix on Wednesday suggested that his time playing for the Suns has become a thing of the past.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.