Suns 99, Thunder 98 – MVSteve unleashed

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Nash carried the Suns to victory down the stretch. (Layne Murdock/NBAE Photos)

Nash carried the Suns to victory down the stretch. (Layne Murdock/NBAE Photos)

You didn’t really think the Suns would lose to the now 1-14 Thunder, did you?

Well, I kind of did after watching Oklahoma City outhustle and outplay the Suns through three quarters, but then again I didn’t expect Steve Nash to all of a sudden transform into the two-time MVP we used to see run circles around the NBA.

When Phoenix needed him most Nash took over in the Suns’ 99-98 victory, scoring 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting and dishing five assists in the fourth quarter after tallying just two points in the first half.

The game turned into the Steve Nash Show when the Suns trailed by six with two minutes left following a Kevin Durant 3 that was a crushing blow after Phoenix had cut a 16-point deficit to one.

Then Nash drove in for 2 past Russell Westbrook, stuck a 3 when Westbrook went under a screen and nailed a jumper in the corner to tie things up after Westbrook hit a free throw.

Following a Chris Wilcox bucket, Nash found Matt Barnes wide open for the eventual game-winning 3 and managed to later dodge the Thunder for the final eight seconds when they pulled an anti-Jamelle Horne by failing to run him down to send him to the line.

For the game, Nash scored 20 points and set season highs with 15 dimes and eight rebounds.

“He looked like old Steve,” Barnes told the Associated Press. “He took over in every aspect. … We need Steve just to play his game for us to be the best team we can be, and tonight he did that.”

Nash’s MVP fourth quarter is amazing in light of the fact he was awful in the first half, when he committed four of his seven turnovers. But all of a sudden, with Shaq sitting out the game for rest, Nash started to improvise and create like the old Steve Nash, and – what do you know – he took over a game just like he did so many times over the past four seasons.

There’s no question this game shows the Suns need to run and let Nash do what he does best when Shaq is not on the floor. I would even prefer it if head coach Terry Porter staggered his substitutions so that Nash and Shaq get their rest at different times, so then you can have Nash leading a quicker pace with Shaq out and Shaq carrying a heavier load when Nash rests.

Tonight proved Steve Nash can still play at an extremely high level, and (to nobody’s surprise) showed how much better he is when he’s allowed to be Steve Nash.

“It sure looks like we’re just a little too reliant on Shaq,” Nash told the AP. “We’re just not quite comfortable playing without him the way we used to play because we spend so much time trying to incorporate him.

“We’re finally kind of getting back to a rhythm that we had without Shaquille. Terry’s been urging us to get back there. We have spent a lot of time working on the other stuff, and we’ve lost our rhythm there a little bit. We found it a bit tonight.”

Porter substitutions tonight showed he has no faith in his backup point guards, something Mike D’Antoni can certainly relate to.

Goran Dragic didn’t play a meaningful minute for the third straight game, and Sean Singletary logged just five minutes in place of Nash in the first half. So when Nash re-entered the contest with 9:51 to go in the first half, he never exited again.

That’s never happened before.

Nash played 43 minutes in the contest, more minutes than he ever played in a regular-season, non-overtime contest under D’Antoni. In fact, Nash has not played that many minutes in a regular-season, non-overtime game since March 21, 2002, when his Mavericks dropped a 105-102 decision to the Spurs.

Nash has now played at least 40 minutes in consecutive non-overtime contests – after logging 40 Saturday against Portland – for only the second time in his past five years in Phoenix. These past two games equal the amount of 40-minute regulation games Nash played all of last season, and the point guard has only recorded five such games before this stretch since Feb. 10, 2006.

Going into the season, Porter talked about the importance of resting Nash, and through his first nine games before the suspension the veteran point guard averaged a very reasonable 31.9 minutes per game.

But after a game of having just Dragic and Singletary at his disposal, Porter has played Nash 37.4 minutes per contest, a number that must be decreased at the sacrifice of regular season success to keep Nash fresh for later.

Sit a Shaq

On paper it made sense to rest Shaq tonight against a formerly 1-13 Oklahoma City team lacking a major presence in the post to save him for Al Jefferson and the T-Wolves Wednesday night, but if it weren’t for some Nash magic the Thunder would have spoiled that plan.

The Suns lost the rebounding battle, 40-34, and yielded 15 offensive boards without Shaq there to clog the middle.

It looked to be the Bulls game all over again, with an inferior opponent destroying the Suns in the hustle game and playing with a chip on their shoulder with Shaq sitting out to rest specifically against them.

The Suns now improve to 1-1 without Shaq, but that almost requires an asterisk since Phoenix deserved to lose this game.

Let’s hope the Suns play a bit more like the Suns of old when Shaq sits, and let’s hope the Suns take limiting Nash’s minutes despite the short-term detriment to the team as seriously as they do limiting Shaq’s.

The Suns clearly have better options behind Shaq than Nash because first-round pick Robin Lopez played a solid game tonight as the starting center, going for 11 points, five boards and three stuffs in 25 minutes.

Lopez doesn’t get minutes sometimes when Shaq plays because there’s only so much frontcourt time to dole out amongst Shaq, Amare and Boris Diaw, but he certainly deserves some court time. How many seven-footers can steal the ball, go coast to coast and finish with a tomahawk flush like Lopez tonight?

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