PHOENIX – Steve Nash(notes) says there's nothing personal between him and these San Antonio Spurs. The hip check, the busted nose, the knee to his groin? None of it matters anymore. Different teams, he says. Different times. He would've preferred to have won a playoff series from the black-and-silver's empire by now, but why should that define him? He's comfortable with his standing in the NBA, satisfied with what he's done with his life.
This is the genius of Nash. He's forever above the fray, always seeing the big picture, on the court and off. His life is balanced and full, as the lives of too few professional athletes are, and that's why it's easy to believe him. Yet, somewhere deep inside of Nash, he knows the opposite is also true – and that's why he reacted as such Monday night.
He played as if this were all about him.
Nash blitzed past the San Antonio Spurs, stapling their young guard to the floor and splintering their defense. With each furious rush to the rim, with each relentless attack, it was clear he had taken it upon himself to exorcise the Phoenix Suns' demons. No more waiting for the Spurs to swing first. He would set the tone.
"He ran it down our throat," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Nash had shredded his team for 33 points and 10 assists in a 111-102 decision that gave the Suns the opening game of the teams' Western Conference semifinal series.
The Suns have failed to get by the Spurs for seven years now, but Nash's heartbreak has cut nearly twice as deep. From Phoenix to Dallas to Phoenix again, he's run into the Spurs seemingly every other spring, with the result never changing. Six of his previous 13 seasons ended with a playoff loss to San Antonio. Never has he pushed past the Spurs in the postseason, and this is just the second time he has even led in a series with them.
Dirk Nowitzki(notes) hurt his knee in 2003. Joe Johnson(notes) missed the start of the 2005 series with a broken bone in his face. In 2007, NBA commissioner David Stern intervened, suspending Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) and Boris Diaw(notes) when they wandered too far from the bench after Robert Horry(notes) folded Nash into the scorer's table. The following year, Tim Duncan(notes) broke the Suns' spirits with a 3-pointer at the end of overtime. Few players in NBA history have experienced so much misery at the hands of one franchise.
"I would like a couple of those games back from the years gone by," Nash said. "I'd like for the suspensions to never happen, different things that seem to creep up every game. Ultimately, you respect your opponent, and it just motivates you to play better and reach a new level."
Nash needed to carry that edge with him into Game 1 to have any hope of ending his dozen years of playoff torture. More than anyone else, this is his burden. Mike D'Antoni is gone. Stoudemire remains, but the Suns go as Nash leads. He attacked the Spurs relentlessly, scoring 17 points in the first quarter, and his message was clear: History doesn't matter. This series won't be decided on karma and luck alone.
The Spurs have frequently turned Nash into a scorer over the years, reasoning that is better to let him loose if they can stay close to the Suns' shooters. Still, this was different. With Bruce Bowen(notes) no longer around to harass him, Nash took the fight to San Antonio. George Hill(notes) – the hero of the Spurs' first-round victory over Dallas – wasn't up for it. Nash spun Hill right, then left, leaving a trail of defenders on his way to the rim. Popovich benched Hill to open the second half, starting Tony Parker(notes) in his place, and this could continue in Game 2. If the Spurs can't slow Nash, they'll need Parker to attack him back.
The Suns weren't completely sure what they'd get from Nash. Nor was Nash sure himself. A hip injury had slowed him at the end of Phoenix's series with the Portland Trail Blazers, so much so that Nash said he was "dragging my leg around." The three days between series did him some good, and he's hopeful he'll avoid any setbacks.
"If that's the case," Nash said, "it'll be a pleasure just to compete and fight every night in the series."
Nash spoke as if he's the underdog, and that's long been the role that suits him best. After Santa Clara was the only college program of merit to offer him a scholarship, he developed into a true NBA prospect. He became an All-Star in Dallas, and yet the Mavericks let him go, figuring his age and health would eventually take too much of his game. Nash responded by winning consecutive MVP awards.
Now, Nash again finds everyone picking against him. The Suns are a No. 3 seed playing a No. 7, and most of the NBA sees the 7 as the favorite. The teams' performance in the first round has something to do with that, as does their own history. All those playoff victories by the Spurs broke the Suns.
Unable to beat the Spurs, the Suns tried to match them. They brought in a former Spur, Steve Kerr, to guide them as general manager, then traded for one of the Spurs' biggest rivals, Shaquille O'Neal(notes). D'Antoni grew more and more defensive about his inability to beat San Antonio, and eventually left for New York. Kerr replaced him with Terry Porter, one of his former Spurs teammates.
None of it worked, and the Suns missed the playoffs last season. Nash could have played out the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer, but instead opted to sign an extension. At the time, it looked like he had abandoned his quest for a championship. In truth, he embraced the challenge of righting the Suns.
"We have to rebuild our confidence, rebuild our culture, our philosophy," he said before the start of the season. "And if we turn that corner, who knows?"
Seven months later, the Suns enter their series against the Spurs feeling as free and loose as ever. Alvin Gentry has had a lot to do with that. The Spurs have marveled at how much the Suns have improved defensively under his rule. Phoenix's locker-room chemistry also has received a significant boost. What Gentry refuses to admit publicly: These Suns have already exceeded expectations. There's no reason for them to feel pressure.
Nash knows that, too, though he wasn't willing to celebrate much. He understands the Suns are forever standing on shaky ground with the Spurs. San Antonio twice roared back after Phoenix seemingly had the game under control, and a victory in Game 2 would change the momentum.
But if the Suns continue to hold serve? If they somehow win the series?
Then Nash will have to admit something else.
This will feel personal.