Sports Out West

Lakers’ Steve Nash adjusting to off-the-ball role

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When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash decided to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles, they were like passengers in a compact automobile ready for a cross-country road trip—they shifted around for comfort’s sake, took turns at the wheel and bickered over directions on how to arrive at their destination. 

Analogous to basketball, Bryant assumed a facilitator guise, Howard refocused his efforts on the defensive side of the court in lieu of scoring, Gasol begrudgingly came off the bench and Nash became accustomed to playing off the ball. 

Nash, a two-time Most Valuable Player, was the focal point of Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni’s run and gun offense that generated winning seasons with the Phoenix Suns in high-scoring fashion.  He was essentially a homing device that probed defenses in order to create quick scoring opportunities for others and himself.

Early in the season, there appeared to be an understanding that Nash would run the offense like he did in Phoenix.  That appears to have gone to the wayside, being replaced by Bryant’s vacillation between scorer and facilitator or in the case of his recent back-to-back 40-plus point, 12-assist performances, a melding of both roles.

In addition, a pick-and-roll combination of Nash and Howard was supposed to present a bigger, more intimidating version of the Nash-Amar’e Stoudemire combination that gave opposing defenses nightmares in Phoenix.  Though Nash and Howard do run the play on occasion, it isn’t being utilized to the full degree that Coach D’Antoni may have envisioned.

Now, sharing the backcourt with an offensive aggressor like Bryant means that Nash doesn’t always facilitate the offense and is subject to the occasional, or sometimes often, commandeering of the ball by Bryant.  As we saw this season, that did not sit well with Howard during a publicized stat sheet-waving incident in which he complained about not receiving enough touches in the visitors’ locker room following a loss to the Chicago Bulls on January 21.

The more docile Nash wouldn’t be inclined to similar behavior, but he could’ve made the same gripe.  Instead, he decided to adjust his game by being an off-the-ball complement to Bryant whenever he is conducting the flow of the offense. 

Nash’s recent performances in the past two games show that he is adjusting accordingly.  In the 118-116 overtime win against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night, Nash had 22 points, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range.

Whenever Bryant would beckon a double-team from Raptors defenders, he would whip the ball to Nash who sank timely 3-point shots.  With a career 3-point percentage of 42.8 percent, it certainly works towards utilizing one of Nash’s strengths.

“Like I’ve said, he’s probably one of the best shooters in history, and he’s playing a little bit off the ball,” said Coach D’Antoni.  “Kobe does some unbelievable things when he has the ball in his hands.  And again, Steve had 22 points and it’s going to be that way a little bit.

“At the same time, he’ll (Nash) get in the pick-and-rolls and stuff, but right now, Kobe is orchestrating a lot of stuff and Steve is okay with it.”

On Sunday afternoon against the vise grip defense of the Chicago Bulls, Nash did more of the same.  Case in point—at the 10:20 mark of the third quarter, Bryant attacked the baseline, summoned a Bulls double-team and found an open Nash for a straightaway 3-pointer that found the net.  He scored 10 of his 16 points in the third quarter and shot a proficient 6-of-9 from the field.

“I just tried to be aggressive,” said Nash after the 90-81 victory over the Bulls.  “I think for our team, a lot of times we’re going to be spacing the floor watching Kobe go to work, but I think I’m more than capable of helping this team at times.  And sometimes, I got to get more involved and look to get shots and be aggressive so I can take some pressure off him (Bryant) and save his legs a little bit and help my teammates.”

In those last two games, Nash averaged three assists per game—just two against the Raptors and four against the Bulls.  Historically, Nash has been known to be a double-digit assist-making machine, but his average this season is down to 6.8 per game.  In the past two seasons, Nash was second in the league in assists per game. 

Nonetheless, Nash has accepted the fact that winning must supersede his own individual merit and statistics have been reduced to an afterthought.  It’s not easy for a player with individual accolades like Nash, but he is making due.

“You’re right, it’s not easy, but if anybody can do it, he (Nash) can do it and he’ll accept anything which means to win,” said Coach D’Antoni.  “And it’s what makes him so great and why he has a great career.”

Like Nash, Howard is also beginning to modify his own game by embracing the role of defensive anchor rather than looking to score.  Overall, the role adjustments have had positive effects and that road trip to the playoffs should be a more comfortable ride.

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Ben Hernandez Jr.

Ben Hernandez Jr. is a Los Angeles native who is unable to eliminate his fixation for sports, particularly the NBA. He currently works as a writer/editor for a business school and has written for various publications on topics, such as finance, politics, and health. Sports-wise, he has covered the LA Lakers and Clippers on Examiner.com. Ben is also a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.