For Nash, a chance to cement his legacy

Steve Nash is one of the the finest competitors the NBA has ever seen.

There isn’t much Steve Nash can’t do.

The Phoenix Suns point guard is a wizard with the basketball, eliciting more “ooh”s and “ah”s on a nightly basis than one might expect from a 36-year-old hailing from Canada. Nevertheless, his gift for the game is palpable. And like so few others before him, Nash has managed to seamlessly integrate individual skills with the success of his team in the absence of even slight egotism or entitlement.

His passing ability is immaculate. Nash currently resides in eighth among the list of all-time assist leaders, and one more healthy season could allow him to supplant Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on that leader board. But the sheer number of dimes doesn’t tell the whole story. His assortment of behind-the-back, no-look, through-the-legs, side-winding, and alley-oop dishes has made him the envy of even the staunchest critics and transformed his Suns team into the best squad in the league to watch for six seasons and counting.

His pick-and-roll game is delightful. It is no less certain that Nash will thread the ball to a diving Amar’e Stoudemire after a well-set pick than it is that Rasheed Wallace will be whistled for a technical foul during the season, but that is what makes Nash’s talent so admirable. Despite the benefit of expectation, any defense will be burned by that play. Nash is so in tune with every move his power forward will make that the pass is simply unstoppable. He is so adept, that he ranks as possibly the greatest executor of this scheme, with the exception of John Stockton, maybe. But that’s not bad company, to be sure.

Nash’s dominance, though, stems not from just his exceptional distribution; instead, it is his collective dynamism and versatility that pave the way for his excellence. A key facet of that protean nature is his deadly yet gorgeous shooting stroke. Most of his long jumpers come off the dribble; give him an open catch-and-shoot look, and it is probably going in. Nash is so good shooting the ball, in fact, that ESPN’s John Hollinger went so far as to rank him the NBA’s best of all-time — above the greats like Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Larry Bird, who were much more renowned for their accuracy.

And that assertion was certainly grounded in stats, as all Hollinger’s analyses are. Nash is a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent free-throw shooting) and would have accomplished that feat a fifth time with another tenth of a percentage point on his free-throw average in 2006-2007. The other members of the club? Bird, Miller, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jose Calderon — and the only one of them to achieve it even twice was Bird.

Nash already overcame one barrier in dispatching the Spurs. Is this the year he comes away with a championship?

His free-throw stroke is one of the most admired in the sport. He calmly steps to the line, politely denies the ball from the referee, takes two empty-handed simulated attempts, then drills the actual ones 90 percent of the time.

All that said, passing and shooting do not complete Nash’s offensive game, as his intangible skills are just as pivotal to his success as his ball handling. Nash is so focused on the game that he never misses a beat. He is constantly aware of the position on the floor of each of his four teammates and each of his five defenders. He knows exactly where to put the ball at any given time, when to put the team on his back and control the offense, and how much time is on the clock — that all comes second nature to Nash.

More crucial than all of that, though, is his unremitting desire to win. That is represented well in his willingness to play hurt (with a gushing nose or swollen eye), his willingness to take the last shot, and his overall stoic demeanor on the court.

So where has all this gotten Nash as an individual? He, of course, boasts two league MVP awards, from 2005 and 2006, and fell just short of securing a third straight in falling to his former teammate Nowitzki. He is also hailed as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Nonetheless, as he and the Suns prepare to square off against the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, there is a conspicuous scarlet letter that continues to brand Nash.

He has never won an NBA championship.

In fact, he has amassed the most career playoff games (112) of any NBA player without even making it into the NBA Finals. Amid all the talented players in the league right now, there is no honor more important to a player’s patrimony than the number of titles he secures for himself. As LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to wrestle for the crown of league’s best player, the one fault of LeBron than holdouts accentuate is his lingering failure to come away on top when it counts.

When Nash and his crew take the floor Monday night, the hunger for a win will be more evident. Clear underdogs against the juggernaut Lakers, the Suns will have to play flawless basketball to dethrone the defending champs, and Nash will have to play a prominent role.

In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon, Nash downplayed the importance of individual regalia.

“At this stage of my career, the only goals worth chasing are team goals. To win a championship is still the greatest thing to play for and the greatest motivator. So it’s a fantastic situation right now, where this team that wasn’t expected to get here is here and we got a real chance,” he said.

If Nash and the Suns can come out on top, the fruit will be that much sweeter. After all, they are coming off an improbable series sweep over the San Antonio Spurs, who had previously plagued the Suns in the postseason this decade.

Ousting the Lakers, knocking the championship monkey off his back, and finally enshrining himself in the peak tier of NBA greats in the process?

That’s an accomplishment worth being selfish about.

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