Lakers, Steve Nash not on point yet
Finding the magic in point guard's game central after loss to Mavericks
LOS ANGELES -- All the start of the NBA regular season did for the Los Angeles Lakers was add to their checklist. They knew they had to work new players into a new offense and that their second unit would be outscored most nights, but what they learned in a 99-91 opening-night loss to the Dallas Mavericks (sans Dirk Nowitzki, no less) is they have to play better defense, make more free throws and get a better point guard.
It's not that they need to make a trade. They already did that when they acquired Steve Nash. Now they need Nash to play like Steve Nash.
If you thought the sight of him in a Lakers uniform was jarring, you should see his first Lakers stat line: seven points on 3-for-9 shooting, four assists, no free throws.
It has been odd from the first time reporters were allowed in to Lakers practice to watch them work on the Princeton offense. Nash would throw the ball to Pau Gasol, and either stand aside or run through and curl out to the far corner, away from the action. In Phoenix he rarely went anywhere without the ball. Now he rarely has it after the Lakers cross half court. (That is, when he gets it across half court. Rodrigue Beaubois pilfered the ball from Nash in the backcourt on one play Tuesday night and went in for an uncontested layup.)
The Lakers won't look right until Nash looks right. Right now he's a long way from right. When Nash was running the pick-and-roll with Amar'e Stoudemire, it was one of the most effective plays in the NBA. Nash even made the pick-and-roll a threat using Marcin Gortat as his accomplice. You'd think that running it with a monster finisher like Dwight Howard or a deft shooter like Gasol would be natural. Except that's not what this offense asks him to do.
Coach Mike Brown has insisted Nash has the authority to run the pick-and-roll whenever he wants. But like a quarterback who's reluctant to audible into an option play, Nash so far has refrained from going to his old standby at the expense of the development of the offense.
"Maybe I need to assert myself more in pick-and-roll situations," Nash said. "But ... I'm caught trying to get the ball moving in the Princeton, and get us into different sets and opportunities. And tonight we didn't do a good job getting into the Princeton and we didn't do a good job getting into the pick-and-roll. It's growing pains and it's a struggle, and we're out of sync and we're going to probably have more."
The offense worked fine for Kobe Bryant, who scored 22 points on unusually efficient 11-for-14 shooting. Bryant will always find a way to get his. Gasol doesn't usually demand the ball, but he wound up with it enough to generate 23 points and six assists. Howard had a double-double -- albeit, not in a dominant performance -- with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
The first quarter went fine. The Lakers had 10 assists on 13 baskets and scored 29 points, and even Nash had five. Then he scored only one more bucket the rest of the way. As the game went on, the Lakers seemed less authoritative on offense, less cohesive on defense, less resistant to a charge led by Vince Carter and Elton Brand. (No, that last part wasn't copied from a clipboard that had been unused since 2000.)
The Lakers have preached patience from the start of training camp. They didn't promise domination from the outset. But they are expected to win games -- eventually a lot of them -- and so far this group has seen nothing but L's in nine games (granted, only one that counts). And this could quickly get worse before it gets better, with a back-to-back in Portland on Wednesday night and a meeting with the always-eager Clippers on Friday.
Grant Hill, who spent five seasons in Phoenix with Nash, offered his perspective on the Lakers' new point guard during the preseason.
"I think for him, it was his show [in Phoenix]," Hill said, "and it's been his show for a while. Now, if you go off of what Kobe said in training camp, it's Kobe's show. So he's going to have a different role. I think he's smart enough to figure it out, but it's an adjustment. I think when you're used to being the guy, and used to having the ball in your hands the majority of the time and called upon to do most of the creating, now it may not be the case all the time. It's an adjustment. But I think Steve is talented enough, he's smart enough where he'll figure it out. But sometimes as you get older, it's harder to adapt."
Hill, who just turned 40, would know. Nash is closing in on him, with a 39th birthday looming in February. New tricks for an old dog. It's not just on the court; it's an entire mindset. Nash had to go from trying to beat Bryant to relying on him. Bryant had to go from wanting to destroy Nash to wanting Nash to succeed. Both insist their rivalry is behind them.
"We've never talked about it," Nash said after a preseason game. "I believe he's excited that I'm on the team. I'm thrilled to be on the team. I don't feel it's an issue."
They haven't clicked instantly. During one preseason sequence, Nash threw a ball behind a cutting Bryant on one play, then fired an errant pass toward the baseline after Kobe stopped running the next time down. Bryant, after years of creating for himself, said he's still adjusting to the catch-and-shoot opportunities that will come his way with Nash.
Nash, eager to fit in, is willing to defer to Kobe. When Bryant saw the game slipping away from the Lakers in the third quarter Tuesday night, he went into rescue mode, firing up five shots in the period (nearly equal to his first-half output) and scoring eight points. One time, when Bryant passed out of the post to Nash, Nash declined an open jump shot and returned the ball to Bryant.
Their interaction is just one complexity the Lakers need to work on.
"With [Nash] and Kobe out there, they're two of the [brightest] -- in terms of basketball IQ and intelligence," Hill said. "Give them a couple of games, they'll have it all figured out."
After playing at Portland on Wednesday, it will be a couple of games. And after Dallas, it looked like they'll need more time than that.
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