Nash Lands First Punch in Latest Slugfest With Spurs
With his shaggy hair still wet from his shower and his jeans-and-collared-shirt casual attire blending in on Planet Orange, the future Hall of Famer filled his plate with noodles and a healthy dose of earthy greens while teammates, coaches and media members alike wandered by as if he wasn't there. And when Nash headed to the podium inside the US Airways Arena to discuss his team's 111-102 win over San Antonio in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, even the brightest of spotlights couldn't inspire the 14-year veteran to think or talk like a bona fide star whose revenge plot had just begun.
"Thanks," he humbly began when asked of his 17-point first quarter that set the terrific tone on his 33-point, 10-assist outing. "Uh, I was fortunate to enough to get some opportunities early to be aggressive and try to put some life into the building and our team and fortunately I got off to a nice start."
Nash's timeless humility aside, it was his sensational start that gave the Suns a much-needed swagger against these Spurs that have haunted them for so long.
Forget that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich essentially called the historical factor irrelevant, a convenient claim considering it was his team that had ousted the Suns in four of their last five postseasons. Forget that Nash himself insisted it's not personal, as he surely believes he was one Robert Horry hip-check away from winning it all in 2007 when the Game 4 dirtiness led to suspensions for Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw that Nash called "disgusting" back then.
"I think this is personal for him, that this is a series that he wants (more) than anything," the always-candid Jared Dudley said of his teammate. "He might not express this, but ... I can only imagine if I lost in the playoffs to the same team over and over, you would have that hatred.
"I think that's why he came out aggressive, saying, 'Hey I want this Game 1, I want to protect home court, and if you're going to take it you're going to have to play a hell of a game.' He hadn't come out that aggressive in a long time."
This matchup has been a career-changer for championship-less Nash more than anyone, that last part of his legacy that remains unfulfilled while San Antonio has won two titles since he came to the Suns in 2004. He went to work changing all that in the opener, welcoming the unexpected health after a recent hip injury and dominating in ways that had Popovich scurrying on the sideline.
His first-half impact was so great that George Hill -- who had started 46 consecutive games in which he was available -- found himself on the bench to start the second half. Tony Parker was reinserted to his old spot, breathing life back into one of the most dangerous seventh-seeds of all time during a 20-7 run that put them up 67-64 in the third quarter.
But Nash figured him out, too, and so began a masterful stretch late in the third quarter in which five of seven field goals were either Nash scores or assisted baskets that all deserved a place on the night's national highlight reel. A Stoudemire dunk in DeJuan Blair's face finished what was a 16-4 run to close the third quarter, and the Suns had held off the Spurs' push.
Nash had to do it yet again late in the fourth quarter, after a Parker jumper atop the key cut the Suns' lead to 98-95 with 3:17 remaining. The resident Canadian earned the hockey assist in the most crucial of scores, as he found Grant Hill in the lane and the ball whipped yet again to Jason Richardson on the right wing. His three-pointer with 1:23 left all but ended it, and Nash clapped along with a sold-out home crowd that had reached levels of hysteria not typically seen in these parts. But just to be clear, don't think for a minute that this is personal.
"It's not (personal) really," Nash insisted. "I have a lot of respect for their team. I have a lot of respect for their coaches, the organization. You tip your hat to them. I would've liked a couple of those games back in years gone by. I would've liked the suspensions not to happen, different things that have just seemed to creep up every time, but ultimately you respect your opponent and it just motivates you to play better and try to reach a new level."
The next question, of course, is whether this is a sustainable method for these Suns. It wasn't part of their winning way in the second half of the season, when they had the best record in the NBA while Nash scored 20-plus points just four times after Feb. 10. He scored 30-plus just five times during the regular season, with the Suns going 4-1 in those games.
Popovich was non-committal regarding his starting lineup afterward, meaning we may very well see Parker at tipoff again come Game 2 Wednesday. There's the matter of Nash's day-to-day status, too.
He suffered a hip impingement before Game 2 against Portland in the first round, and never felt the effects more than in a Game 6 in which he had 10 points, six assists and seven turnovers. With three days off between the series, Nash looked like new.
"I like it when we get into a rhythm of playing every other day," he said. "Hopefully I won't have any setbacks with the hip. It felt good tonight, and I don't sense any setbacks. If that's the case, it'll be a pleasure just to compete and fight every night in the series."
The fight, without question, has begun. And Nash, whether he wants to take credit for it or not, threw the first punch.
"I thought (Nash) was terrific tonight," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "He had juice, he had his legs, he shot the ball well. He just did a good job."
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