For the second time in 15 days, Steve Nash produced 29 points and hit at least three 3-pointers Wednesday, when the Suns ended a two-game losing streak with an important 103-98 win over Utah.
In between, Nash had a run of seven straight games with at least 14 assists and averaged 16 assists a game, while his own scoring production and shooting frequency dipped. And after Wednesday’s game, Nash admitted that it wasn’t solely unselfish play or an attempt to get his teammates involved.
Once again, back, neck and shoulder problems — Nash said he was “all spasmed up” — made shooting 3-pointers painful and driving to the basket difficult, limiting Nash to perimeter and pick-and-roll passes. Nash shot just enough to keep defenses honest during the past two weeks, or in the fourth quarter when his team trailed or needed points to put away opponents.
But Nash felt better Wednesday, crediting a pregame treatment session with trainer Aaron Nelson for loosening the affected areas and leaving all of his weapons available. Nash made 10 of 12 shots from the floor and looked more free and fluid both from long range and driving to the basket. He still had 11 assists and even grabbed six rebounds, although one of them cost him a front tooth, thanks to a Carlos Boozer forearm/elbow just before halftime.
“To be honest I felt a little better physically,” Nash said. “We were getting to the rim easily, so I tried to be more aggressive once I felt like my body could take it tonight.
“I have some stuff going on with my back, neck and shoulder and stuff, but tonight (Wednesday) Aaron did an exceptional job. (Recently) I’ve determined that it’s best not to shoot sometimes. But even when it doesn’t feel good I have to keep shooting the ball, especially in the fourth quarter. It hasn’t been the best recently, so most nights I have been looking for ways to draw defenders and pass to teammates.”
Nash did so with deadly effectiveness, collecting 112 assists over seven games and five straight wins. But when the Suns’ shooting percentage dipped to a more normal level, their lack of defensive intensity was exposed in back-to-back losses to conference basement-dwellers Minnesota and Miami.
The intensity was back Wednesday, and the Suns capped their push with their best fourth quarter in weeks (36 points) and closed out a top-tier team.
And with a tough three-game road trip beginning Saturday night in New Orleans and continuing through San Antonio (Monday) and Dallas (Wednesday), the Suns need to maintain that mind-set through their most important week this season.
“I thought we were active and that’s what we need,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We need guys who aren’t hesitating and are using their instincts, especially on defense. I thought the energy was there the whole night and, lo and behold, we scored 36 points in the fourth quarter because of the energy and the way we played.”
The poster boy for that effort was Shawn Marion, who opened the game with an impressive display of helping defense — resulting in steals, blocks and transition baskets — and closed it out with nine of his 26 points and five of his 15 rebounds in the fourth quarter.
“(Marion) was so active and our defense was good primarily because of his activity,” Nash said. “He covers up for some many people. That’s why he is the player he is. That’s why his value is so big to us. It was an outstanding effort and performance and if he can continue to come with that type of energy, we’re going to be tough to beat.”