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It felt like this could have been the year for Steve Nash. Everything was going his way. After multiple pundits predicted the Suns would miss out on the playoffs this season (I picked them to finish eighth), the Suns fought back in a rather Suns like style to prove those experts wrong. They made the playoffs, convincingly, and played some of the best offensive basketball that the world has ever seen during the regular season.
Phoenix finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, good enough for third place in one of the most competitive conferences ever. In the first round of the playoffs, they struggled with a Portland team that could not have a more contrasting play style, but ended up putting them away in six. In the Western Conference Semi-Finals, the Suns were matched up against the team that own them for the past four years, ending their playoff runs time and time again. During this series is when everybody started to realize the Suns were for real. They handled, I mean completely dominated, their rivals by sweeping them in four games. They shoved the ball down the throats of the Spurs, effectively putting an end to the Tim Duncan era and the Spurs dynasty thanks to a heroic one-eyed performance in the closeout game for Nash.
They could have been contempt with the win over San Antonio. Having such a one-sided victory over your most hated opponent is an accomplishment and they could have accepted that as their prize for a fantastic season. But instead, they kept fighting, even if the defending NBA Champions were in their way, they weren’t going to go down without a fight.
They protected home court with lights out shooting fueled by their tremendous home crowd and were oh so close to stealing that advantage in Game 5. A couple of Nash free throws in the first half go down and the Suns have the lead in this series heading home to close it out. But, after coming back from 18 down, the Suns were rewarded with a crushing loss at the buzzer with the most unlikely of heroes hitting the shot. And in Game 6, again this Suns’ squad fought back from a 17-point deficit but this time, the heroic daggers would come from the one who is expected to hit those shots. With two fading jumpshots from the right wing that could not have been defended any better by Grant Hill or Channing Frye, Kobe Bryant put a dagger into the heart of the Suns, killing not only their season but also Steve Nash’s last legitimate shot at an NBA title.
After the game, Nash was in tears as he hugged his coach. Everything he had worked for, all of the obstacles he had to overcome (race, coaching changes, nagging back injuries), gone in an instant thanks to Bryant. After spending 13 years perfecting his fadeaway rainbow jump shot and after creating Amare Stoudemire’s resume and after turning a bunch of nobodies like Channing Frye and Jared Dudley into three-point specialists and after having Shaq steal his reality TV show idea, Nash will likely remain the NBA’s longest tenured player never to play in the NBA Finals.
And none of the blame can be placed on him. He did whatever he was asked to do in this series. He adjusted to whatever the defense was throwing at him and made them pay for giving him the chance to use one of his abundant abilities. When the Lakers took away his scoring, he facilitated like no other. 13 assists in game, 15 in game 2, 15 in game 3, and eight in game 4. When the Lakers switched on the pick and roll and shadowed Amare back from the high post into the paint, Nash took over with his scoring. He drove to the basket and made impossible fadeaways from mid-range with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum all getting a hand up, helplessly, mind you. Shots so tough that they are almost on par with the crazy stuff Kobe does, and to be even be considered with that man is an honor. 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting in game 5 and 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting in game 6.
Maybe Nash could have done more in the closeout game, but he didn’t have any control over that. He did everything he could during his 30 minutes. During the fourth quarter, Nash sat on the bench while a semi-hot Goran Dragic ran the offense (he wasn’t hitting from three, he just blew by his defender twice in the first two minutes). He should have gone in sooner but he didn’t, thus he couldn’t orchestrate the comeback with eight minutes to go. He checked in with three minutes left, which, unfortunately for Nash, is when Kobe is at his best.
Its hard to stomach for Nash. Again, this was his best shot at reaching the Finals and his team, though far inferior to the Lakers talent wise, almost scrapped their way to a title. But now, Nash himself is aging, Amare may leave, Channing Frye may return to normal next season, and 37-year old Grant Hill may not be able to play like 27-year old Grant Hill anymore. This was the first and only real shot that Nash had a chance at making the Finals as the number one option on a title team and he came up short. He’s not to blame and neither are his teammates. Their camaraderie is something to envy. Just credit the Lakers for taking care of business.
And spare the idea that Amare was the #1 option on this team. Though a tremendous talent, which is something I will address soon, Nash created him. That pick and roll made Stoudemire into what he is today. If he leaves Nash for a team without a playmaker even half as good as Steve, don’t be shocked if Amare turns out to be a little overrated.
Nash could still play second fiddle on another team at some point in order to reach the Finals. It wouldn’t matter to him if he was the leader or not, so long as he got there. So long as he reached what he’s been working towards for over a decade. But his recent contract extension makes that situation unlikely. He’s 36-years old right now and he’s signed until the 2012 off-season. Unless Steve Kerr did him a favor by trading him (something I can’t see Nash asking for or Kerr granting him) or buying him out, that’s not likely.
Maybe a big time free agent comes and takes Amare’s place if he goes. Perhaps Dirk Nowtizki comes to town to partner up with his long time pal Nash in an attempt to go for their first respective ring. But that’s a long shot, and even if Amare stays, the Suns aren’t likely to do what they did this season again.
But hey, they’ve been doubted before, and we know how they responded to that. Third place in the the toughest conference maybe ever, gritty win over Portland, shellacking of the hated Spurs, and, unfortunately, a date with the Lakers, which they made seem much more like dinner and a movie rather than just a walk in the park. So there’s a chance they get there again.
But for me, this was their best shot. This was his best shot. And the reality that none of us will see a fadeaway 18-footer with a seven footer contesting the shot, or a scoop lay-up as he drives by two defenders, or the combing of his hair each time he back trots down the floor, or a picture perfect pocket pass to the roll man on the pick and roll from Nash in a Finals setting has got me kind of sad.
And you should feel the same way.