PHOENIX — Steve Nash returned to Phoenix for the first time as a member of the Lakers on Wednesday, after leaving the Suns team he played eight seasons for via a sign-and-trade deal that sent him to Los Angeles last summer.
It hasn’t turned out to be a better situation for Nash with his new team necessarily, just one with higher expectations and more scrutiny under the national spotlight as the failure to reach those goals continues.
After the Lakers blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead on their way to losing 92-86 to a Suns team near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, Nash was left searching to explain what went wrong as he has tried to do so many times this season.
“We got really stagnant,” Nash said of his team’s fourth-quarter offense which manufactured just 13 points in the game’s final 12 minutes. “We got pretty one-dimensional and stagnant and the ball stuck a little bit and we got a little predictable.”
The Lakers looked dreadful in the first half while turning the ball over 12 times, playing sloppily and finding themselves tied with a Suns team at the break that managed to knock down just 18 of its 46 shot attempts.
The third quarter was a thing of beauty for L.A., as the turnovers slowed to just two in the period, while the ball moved to the open man for high percentage shots. Pau Gasol snapped out of his first-half funk to hit three of his four shots in the period, after coming in earlier than normal thanks to Earl Clark picking up his fourth foul less than a minute into the second half. Kobe Bryant had four assists in the period, and the Lakers connected on 65 percent of their shots, including hitting four of five from three-point distance.
The fourth quarter was a disaster, however, and the game seemed to turn when Dwight Howard re-aggravated the shoulder injury that forced him to miss three games a couple of weeks ago. The Lakers led 78-73 with 6:56 to play when Dwight left the game for good with the injury, and were outscored 19-8 the rest of the way.
Michael Beasley played brilliantly offensively for Phoenix, and finished with 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter. Beasley got red-hot, and was able to create his own shot and score from both inside and out with relative ease.
With the game tied at 86, Beasley was able to get all the way to the rim and lay it in to give the Suns the lead for good with 46 seconds remaining. Bryant tried to return the favor on the other end, but his shot rimmed off, and the Suns finished the game at the free throw line to snap the Lakers’ three-game winning streak.
“We’re disappointed because we let one get away,” Bryant said afterward. “But we played well. We played well defensively, outside of the stretch at the end of the ballgame where we let Beasley get to his strong hand, let him get all the way to the rim with no support. That’s not acceptable.”
For the most part, the Lakers talked about missing too many easy shots and the offense not clicking as the reasons for letting this one slip, but the loss of Howard was big, both for this game and for the team’s future. Dwight was in a lot of pain afterward, and while he said he didn’t want to be shut down in order to rest the shoulder, he may not have a choice if he can’t play through the injury.
Despite the loss, this was Nash’s night in Phoenix. He received a strong ovation from the fans during pregame introductions, and an even larger one later in the first quarter during a timeout when the Suns honored him with a video tribute on the scoreboard.
Nash finished with 11 points, two assists, and two turnovers, while shooting just 3-of-8 from the field. He played just OK, but couldn’t do enough to will his team to victory as he had so many times in the past with the Suns. He remains, however, one of the most intelligent players in the game, and did a good job of explaining the issues his new team will face should Howard be forced to miss extended time with the injury.
“It’ll be tough without him,” Nash said. “This team’s built, I think, to play around a center. We’re not athletic or fast elsewhere. We’re experienced and we have some skilled players but it’s all predicated on having that defensive presence and having a big body in the paint on both ends.”
It wouldn’t seem to be able to get much tougher for these Lakers.