Time: 8:30 p.m. MST
With two losses following two wins, the Lindsey Hunter honeymoon phase is over.
That’s unfortunate, because the Suns would love to pretend they’ve moved on without Steve Nash when he enters the US Airways Center tonight sporting a different shade of purple.
Instead, Phoenix is back to losing. Not that Nash and the Lakers are winning that much, either. The breakup between the Suns and their former franchise player appears to have worked out for no one, unless you count Phoenix potentially stealing a lottery pick from an underachieving superteam featuring Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
L.A., however, seems to be figuring things out. They have won three straight following a 2-9 stretch. Two of those wins came against likely playoff teams in Utah and Oklahoma City.
The Lakers’ recent success, however, has not come as advertised when the team was first assembled. It is Bryant, not Nash, picking opponents apart with his passing, averaging 13 assists a game during the win streak. It is Earl Clark, not Pau Gasol, complementing Howard in the post as part of the starting unit.
The Clark development could not be more ironic. Once buried without a chance of rising from the end of the bench in Phoenix, the former Suns first-round pick became a lifeline for D’Antoni in Los Angeles. This is the same D’Antoni who Suns fans recall as reluctant to ever go more than seven deep in his rotation.
In the Lakers’ most recent win, Clark registered a Howard-like double-double with 20 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
It’s safe to say that Nash’s presence will generate more memories (and bitterness) than that of Clark. Every pick-and-roll that ends in a basket will be a flawed replay of the countless such plays Nash executed on Planet Orange. It will be Howard, Bryant, Gasol and Co. on the receiving end instead of Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, and countless others.
Goran Dragic, in the unenviable role of “first point guard after Nash”, will go head-to-head against him on national television (Phoenix still needs Nash in the building to get that perk). It will be an blunt, unfair stage of comparison, particularly should Nash have a good night.
Nash left just as things were about to hit rock bottom. Dragic was handed the shovel to dig the Suns out.
It will be interesting to see if Bryant, the Suns’ usual tormentor, plays with the same anger and motivation he usually exhibits when he visits Phoenix. He has made no secret of his dislike for the Suns, mostly due to the first-round playoff eliminations they handed him in 2006 and 2007.
With no remaining players from those Suns teams remaining — and with the chief architect of those losses now his teammate — Bryant may be content continuing to amass double-digit assist numbers, instead of dropping 40 points out of spite.
A Suns win over the Nash-led Lakers would (for one night) do wonders for a squad that has done everything short of admit that “life sucks without Steve.” Dragic could take pride in what he’s been asked to do and make a statement. Marcin Gortat could have his first above-average game against Dwight Howard, another matchup of former backup vs. former mentor. Michael Beasley could continue his torrid stretch off the bench.
Against the Lakers horrified Suns’ fans imagined at the beginning of the season, all that would not have been enough. Against these Lakers?