LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant won't be joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason, but there is growing optimism Steve Nash will be on the court as early as Sunday's playoff opener against the San Antonio Spurs.
A strained right hamstring and hip soreness forced Nash to miss the final eight games of the regular season, including Wednesday's 99-95 overtime victory over the Houston Rockets. The win gave the Lakers the Western Conference's No. 7 seed and a first-round matchup with their old rival, the Spurs.
Nash said he had two epidural injections in his lower back on Tuesday, which has begun to alleviate his hamstring pain. The Lakers announced Tuesday an MRI exam confirmed Nash is dealing with “several preexisting issues related to his hip and back, which are causing nerve irritation and contributing to his hamstring pain and weakness.”
Nash and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak both expressed optimism Nash would be able to play on Sunday.
"It really depends on whether the two epidurals work," Nash said. "If they kick in, I have a good chance to play."
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Nash and the Lakers also will benefit from having three off days to rest and prepare before their first-round series starts.
"He felt a lot better [Wednesday]," Kupchak said of Nash. "He had a limited workout, which he really hasn't been able to do. We're hoping that [Thursday] morning he feels better and can increase the workout a little bit."
Nash, 39, averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 assists in 50 games this season. He also missed 24 games with a broken left leg. Nash's first season with the Lakers is far from what he expected when he was acquired last summer in a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns.
"It's been tough," Nash said. "I've had a lot of sleepless nights this season, let alone the last 2½ weeks. You do all this extra training in the summer and to break my leg and miss seven weeks and to be out again is painful for me, for sure."
The Lakers are 19-13 without Nash, including a 7-1 record to finish the regular season. They've also won both their games since Bryant suffered a season-ending torn left Achilles tendon during Friday's victory over the Golden State Warriors.
"I haven't been able to see him, but I've been texting with him," Nash said of Bryant. "He's in good spirits."
While the Lakers' defense has been impressive since Bryant was hurt, their offense could use some help. They shot just 36.5 percent during a 91-86 victory over the Spurs on Sunday and shot a mere 36.7 percent during their victory over the Rockets.
Nash obviously could aid the Lakers' scoring problems.
"You watch the game tonight? You watch San Antonio and this game on the defensive end? We struggled to score points," Kupchak said. "So just having Steve out there, his 12 to 14 points a game, is going to help us. And there is his leadership and so on and so forth. Our offense will be better when he's back. That's the area we probably need the most help in."
Steve Blake has started in Nash's absence and averaged 23.5 points the past two games. He also knows what kind of boost Nash's return would provide.Said Blake: "He'll just add another dimension to our team."
Kupchak said he trusts Nash to make a wise decision on whether he can play Sunday. Nash said the determining factor will be whether he can run full speed up and down the court. Nash went some skill and one-on-one drills with player development coach Phil Handy, but that didn't include any full-speed running.
"I haven't been able to run yet," said Nash, who would be matched up with speedy Spurs point guard Tony Parker. "I can jog and go three-quarter speed. I can't sprint. You got to be able to run to play in an NBA game. If the drugs work, I can be running by two or three days. It depends on the drugs.
"When I can play, I'll play, no question. It's not even a matter of getting to 100 percent. If I can play, I'll play. I can't just play yet, unfortunately. It's tough."
The Lakers believe they can compete with the Spurs after beating them last Sunday. And if Nash is back, they like their chances even more.
"Anything is possible," Nash said. "I think they're a tremendous team with a tremendous coach, but I think anything is possible with our group. I think I can definitely help. If nothing else, we are lacking a little depth without Kobe and myself. Just having another body out there can help and some experience, another person, another playmaker."
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