Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When Nash Stays Healthy, Lakers Are Tough

Staples Center was packed Tuesday afternoon, a sellout capacity crowd in attendance to watch their beloved Lakers encounter the red hot Knicks -- who were by far LA's toughest opponent this season. One of the surest things is that the Los Angeles Lakers can in fact beat a top-notched team, as fans can suddenly stop panicking and remain every bit optimistic about a storied franchise.

And while Mike D'Antoni's Lakers were, well, lethargic, disengaged and soft, to one's understanding, D'Antoni used flimsy excuses. And maybe he was right. With the return of Steve Nash, the Lakers have improved -- faster and more potent with him on the floor as their trusty point guard. The Lakers, who have been looking for solutions and ways to dismiss woes and mediocrity, cannot win a 17th NBA title without Nash.

It's just seemingly implausible, and Nash has been called on to salvage the Lakers season before matters become worse. The Lakers, when Nash is on the floor, are more efficient and everybody knows their role it seems. For as long as we've known D'Antoni, he's needed this guy by his side, he's counted on Nash and he has run and executed his offense brilliantly. With Nash, D'Antoni has a .734 career win percentage in games. Without him, he has a .387 win percentage.

OK, it's only one tough opponent they played against when it comes to teams over .500. OK, Kobe Bryant had an efficient 34 point on 14-for-24 shooting effort against the Knicks. OK, fine, Pau Gasol finally played with heart and toughness, dishing out six assists and swooping down to the rim finishing with an empathic submarine-dunk in the final seconds for the game-clinching point. OK, Metta World Peace scored 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting off the bench, while involved in a heavyweight-wrestling match with Carmelo Anthony.

But with Nash back running the offense, the Lakers are still hopeful they can bring home a championship. After the Lakers beat the Knicks 100-94 on Christmas Day for their fifth straight win, it was heard loud and clear, it gave fans something to smile and cheer about. Entering this game, the Lakers lost three consecutive times on Dec. 25, making it anything but jolly for Bryant. Thank goodness for Nash. This time around, Mr. Grinch didn't steal Christmas from the Lakers. This time around, it was holiday redemption and the Lakers avenged their loss against the Knicks, cooling down the hottest team in the league.

For Nash, the holiday season is about giving, averaging 20 assists in his first two games since the comeback. By all rights, the Lakers should still be a heavy playoff favorite, after making a loud statement. It's now time for fans to breathe a sigh of relief, now time to feel good about something, realizing this team is built with talent and a bevy of stars who can make a playoff run based on experience and athleticism.

Fortunately for the Lakers, who were quiescent and lifeless without Nash, the time couldn't be better for his return, with the Knicks arriving for a holiday matinee and a rematch after annihilating L.A. at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. Nash welcomed swarms of reporters, he stood there by his locker, waiting patiently to be interrogated and responded softly. In the age of NBA guards and anybody with ball-handling skills to run the floor and distribute the ball, the Lakers have been missing a critical piece on offense. If the Lakers desire winning a championship in June, then Nash must be a key component, and indeed he fits in D'Antoni's system.

Nash, by the way, directed D'Antoni's up-tempo offense for four seasons with the Phoenix Suns, and so with his familiarity and ability to facilitate and get up and down the floor, he's definitely the Lakers' way out of trouble. The Lakers, once embarrassed and frustrated, has to certainly feel more confident and glad he's back in the starting five. These Lakers, remember, were struggling and falling to substandard opponents, drawing criticism and doubts from fans. These Lakers, remember, are led by Kobe Bryant, who is well past his prime and has taken way too many shots, not realizing age has finally caught up with him.

It wasn't working without Nash, and now that he's back, the Lakers have a legitimate shot. It can't be ignored when Nash is on the floor distributing the ball, making his teammates better, setting up open looks and creating in transition. It can't be ignored when Nash is delivering passes inside the paint, playing like an ageless point guard and orchestrating a system and new offense created by someone who is identified as an offensive guru.

There is no better way to look at it, but realistically Nash is maybe the most important player on the Lakers, and it really was evident once sidelined 24 games because of his fractured left leg. Not surprisingly, the Lakers are 2-0 with Nash in the lineup, one of the most creative and finest playmakers in the game. For those who have watched Nash for years, he puts everything in perspective and keeps everyone compose, and because of it, the offense flows and feeds on his energy and ability to create in transition. I know, I know, Nash made it possible for the Lakers, controlling the final minutes of the Christmas Day masterpiece, on a day Bryant surpassed Oscar Robertson to become the all-time scoring leader in Christmas Day games.

The matchup of the leagues top two scorers was more of the focus at the beginning, with Bryant and Anthony putting on a show, making thrilling shots and dropping 34 points each. After Bryant and Anthony were done with a thrilling shot-making contest, under six minutes left to play in the fourth, it quickly became Nash's team. As time dwindled down, Nash assisted and or scored on 12 of the Lakers' last 15 points. It was dramatic closing minutes, with Bryant hitting a jump shot and with Dwight Howard enticing the crowd following a dunk. Late in the game, Nash made a few jumpers that were critical and then Gasol was awarded free throws on a pass from Nash.

Since he's come back, the Lakers are the team to beat, from what it seems. Turns out, Nash is the perfect Christmas gift.

There is legitimacy on this Lakers team, and since everybody is touching the ball with Nash back, they are more cohesive and are playing smarter and faster.

There are championship aspirations, after all.

It came on Christmas Day, an ultimate Xmas gift.