Nash's nightmare has dream ending

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Hobbled by an old hip strain that had come back with a vengeance, Steve Nash was playing about as badly as anyone had seen him play. Laboring to get Phoenix's normally frenetic attack out of first gear, he finished the first half with seven turnovers and just one point -- and even that came on a free throw for a defensive 3-second violation.

But when the Suns needed to close out their first-round series against the Trail Blazers, Nash delivered, and as a result Phoenix is through to the second round with a 99-90 win over Portland in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. The Suns will host San Antonio in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday.

With Phoenix clinging to a seven-point edge and 2:33 remaining, Nash hit a long 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock, and then followed it with one of his classic forays through the lane and a wraparound pass to a wide-open Amare Stoudemire for a slam dunk. That effectively ended the competition, but Nash made four free throws in the final minute just to make sure.

"I strained my hip before Game 2 and it just came back really bad tonight," said Nash. "I was really hurting tonight but I didn't want to make my physical problems the center of attention. I just tried to not even talk about it and just be there for my team if I could at some point."

For three quarters, you'd have been forgiven for thinking an impostor had replaced Nash. Normally the orchestrator of the league's most feared offensive attack, he spent most of the night deferring to Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson, as Phoenix's attack shifted to isolations for those two rather than the typical Nash screen-and-roll attack.

In fact, if it were any other player, he probably wouldn't have been on the court at the end. With Nash's backup, Goran Dragic, playing his best game of the series (10 points, three assists and no turnovers in 18 minutes), and Nash having one of his worst performances in memory, Phoenix might have been tempted to ride the youngster down the stretch.

The Suns never even considered it.

"No. No. That would be a big no," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "He was struggling but there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to put him back in the game. It's been tough for him. Physically, it's been a really tough series. They've really gotten into him and beat him up a little bit, but at the end of the day, we were either going to win or lose with Steve in the game. That was not even an option."

One other big reason the Suns won was their defense, even if you rarely hear this team lauded for its work on that end. Phoenix rejected five Blazers shots in the second quarter, controlled the defensive boards by grabbing 33 of 42 misses, and held Portland to 38 percent shooting for the game.

"Once you get into the playoffs, you've got to be able to guard people," said Gentry. "They're never going to write about us as one of the all-time great defensive teams and that's OK. But we give a lot of effort and guys know exactly what their roles are."

The other big factor was Richardson, who was probably the MVP of the series for the Suns and went off for 28 points in this one. Included were back-to-back layups off curl cuts to give Phoenix some breathing room early in the fourth quarter. For the series, he averaged 23.7 points and shot 52.7 percent, including a scalding 22-of-43 on 3-pointers.

"He was just nailing 3s," said Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "We didn't do a good job of controlling the ball."

The Portland fans saluted the Blazers with a loud ovation, a rare response for an elimination game but one indicative of how much the team overcame to win 50 regular-season games and take the Suns to six games in the playoffs. The little engine that was the Blazers tried but failed to chug up the hill one more time, rallying from a 16-point deficit to briefly tie the game before running out of improbable victories.

"They know what we've gone through," said McMillan. "They were just proud, proud of this team responding, playing hard, playing the game the right way, and giving itself a chance to win games. I think they respect that, and I think they showed that by their support at the end."

Meanwhile, the victory comes with an added bonus for the Suns, as they'll get three days for Nash to recover before renewing their heated rivalry with San Antonio.

"Hopefully it's just spasms and stuff and it will settle down before the next round," said Nash. "It's a lot of discomfort ... but it's worth it."