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If the Phoenix Suns win three more games all season then they have to be against the Lakers, because that helps them in this rebuild with getting higher picks. Then again, it was even sweeter to knock off the vaunted Lakers, spoil Nash, D'Antoni, and Clark's return while frustrating the great Kobe Bryant.

Anytime two teams that combine to be 20 games under .500 meet up it brings up a big game feel. Or maybe it is anytime the Phoenix Suns (15-30) host the Los Angeles Lakers (20-25) there is a remembrance of a rivalry now buried in wet ash.

Then there is the added element of Steve Nash with his first game back in the Valley, Mike D'Antoni coaching up the resurgent Lakers, and Earl Clark playing some inspired basketball as of late. All former Suns.

In the end it will be about "Beat L.A." and "We Miss You Steve" dominating the arena sound as the Suns try to end a two game slide that coincides with the Lakers current three game winning streak. The Lakers brought over Nash this past summer, on July 4th, in return the Suns received a protected pick, that will be in the lottery, as long as the Lakers are there too.

This game is important on that level to where you want the Suns to improve their draft status, develop players, and get better by getting worse, but beating LA breaks all of those rules.

They need to give the Lakers as many losses as they can to do everything in their power to retain the pick. That is the only thing they control outside of their own record this season. Getting two lottery picks, one in the Top 5 and the other in the Top 14, is paramount in the rebuild. More assets, more opportunity to get better.

After two days off from the Texas Miss Step over the weekend the team should be focused and come in swinging for the fences with all the motivation in the world. They are on National TV (ESPN) for the second time in as many home games.

There are too many storylines on the table and this is a game created that almost seems to be created in an ESPN production meeting rather than on an NBA calendar.

(Recent) History Lesson

On the season the teams have faced each other once, a 114-102 Lakers win, that was so far back in the season that each team was just under .500 coming into the game.

Kobe dominated the scoring column with 31 points, Clark played 48 seconds, and Nash didn't even suit up due to injury. The Suns were coached by Alvin Gentry and were still starting Michael Beasley. Again, not much to take away from that game other than Kobe did what Kobe normally does.

Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)

Suns: 105.79 PPG (6 wins)

Lakers: 111.68 PPG (13 wins)

2010 Western Conference Semi's Lakers won 4-2 (Included in the totals above)

Head-to-Head (career)

Kobe Bryant vs. Suns: 26.8 PPG 5.0 APG 46.9 FG% (57 games)

Jared Dudley vs. Lakers: 10.1 PPG 3.9 RPG 49.2 FG% (17 games)

In a word, Bryant torches the Suns, and that is not a good thing when you are facing him four times a year minimum.

One thing that has to be said about Kobe distributing the ball more as of late. In his past three games he has dished out 39 total assists, all Lakers wins. It took Kobe nine games to get 39 assists (41 to be exact) before this stretch. Typically the Lakers are a better team when Kobe is a facilitator because he can get his literally whenever he wants. For his career he has 83 games with 10+ assists including the Playoffs. The Lakers as a team respond well to that going 57-26 in those games.

That is a seasons worth of data. The Lakers could be a 68.6% winning team if Kobe did this nightly, sort of like what Nash did here.

Starting Line-Ups

PG - Goran Dragic v. Steve Nash

SG - Jared Dudley v. Kobe Bryant

SF - P.J. Tucker v. Ron Artest

PF - Luis Scola v. Earl Clark

C - Marcin Gortat v. Dwight Howard

Potential Suns Inactives: Jermaine O'Neal (Irregular Heart Beat)

Potential Lakers Inactives: Jordan Hill (Hip Surgery)

Key Match-Up

Luis Scola vs. Earl Clark

Right now Clark is playing some inspired basketball including nine starts in his last ten games where he has put up some very respectable numbers, 11 PPG, 8.8 RPG, and shooting 49.5% from the field. That is sort of what the Suns thought they got when they drafted Clack 14th Overall in 2009. Three teams later and Clark has become a starter surrounded by Hall of Fame talent, which is something the Suns have to key in on.

If Scola and the rest of the team forgets about Clark he can knock down four threes like he did last night, crash the glass for a put back, or even take over the game for the first time ever in Phoenix.

Interesting Stat: 37.7

In 57 career games against the Phoenix Suns Bryant is averaging 37.7 combined points, assists, and rebounds which is his fourth highest total against any opponent. Again, not a good thing when you are also the team he faces four times a year and the 80 (including playoffs) total match-ups, sixth most of any team he has ever played.

Meaningless Stat: 1-6

The Lakers are 1-6 against the Suns specifically when Kobe goes for 10+ assists in a game. The one win? It came in the Playoffs in 2005. So there is that.

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Steve Nash walked into U.S. Airways Center the same way as he always did before, but made a right turn down the corridor instead of a left, heading towards the visitors' locker room.

Coming from the airport to the arena there was nothing but light bulbs and cameras. When he finally arrived it was a quick walk to a hall of crowded reporters, media, and Suns personnel that welcomed him back. The fanfare and excitement were on the level of rockstardom though his demeanor didn't give off the aura of rockstar.

He spoke as soft, and as thoughtful as he always had here decked out in a tailor made suit answering questions left and right. Not about the game, but rather about the reaction and hoopla that surrounds what amounts to his return to the city and team that originally drafted him and where he became an all-time great.

"I thought that was the way that it would go," stated Nash on the potential of retiring in Phoenix. "I thought I would retire in Phoenix, but it is a difficult business to make any sort of predictions like that. It just became apparent in the last couple of months before free agency that wouldn't happen. That is when other options became a reality."

At one point that was the expectation of the two time League's Most Valuable Player. Why not? The team was not that far removed from a third trip to the Western Conference Finals before the roster deconstruction began that eventually chased away the likes of Amare Stoudemire, Grant Hill, and Nash for virtually nothing. In a three year window the team lost three leaders and two of the franchises all-time greats.

Now he is a member of Los Angeles Lakers team that has struggled, but is putting it together and is far too talented to remain in the pitfall that they are in right now. Especially with a leader like Nash.

His departure, like any other star, led to the team scrambling to get the necessary pieces to replace the production. As hard as that is, that is the easy part when you consider the intangibles Nash brought off the court.

Nash was the emotional leader of this team, the barometer for eight years, and in the blink of an eye he was replaced with draft picks from one of the teams biggest rivals. That was a tough pill for fans to swallow because they wanted Nash to move on, go after a ring, and allow this team to rebuild. Going to the Lakers was a shock, but hindsight allowed the fans and the organization time to understand what he meant to this franchise.

He was the leader on the court, but also helped make lost role players into household names like Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson, Quinten Richardson, James Jones, Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, and Matt Barnes. He maximized their potential.

Getting teammates in the right shape and doing the right things with their body was the matriarch of Nash. The training staff does a great job of getting players healthy, but Nash was the conscience of the team to keep them healthy.

Those are all intangibles that make a special leader.

Not the back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards, not the seven All-Star appearances, not the All-NBA Team recognition, and not the status of being No. 5 all-time in assists in NBA History. Those were what made Nash a great basketball player, not what made him a special member of this franchises history.

When Nash was announced, last by the way, the crowd erupted like it was Game 6 of the 2006 Western Conference Finals and their leader was being introduced to strike fear into the opposing team looking to take them out.

"At guard," Phoenix Suns PA announcer Kip Helt belted. "From Santa Clara, SSSSSTEVE NAAAAAAASH!"

The pure elation from the crowd was chilling to say the least as Nash marched onto the court with no smoke, no strobe lights, and no video playing above. Just the unmeasurable respect from 17,184 fans.

"It was a great reception," said Nash after the game. "Obviously this is a special place for me and to be recognized by the fans was incredible and I am definitely very grateful to them for the reception, but also for my time here, which are among the best years of my life."

The debate can be had that the years were equally, if not more special, for the fans during that same time window who were able to witness greatness before them. It was the best kind of greatness, the kind that was unexpected, but over-exceeded any expectations laid forth. That is Steve Nash.

Phoenix Sun coach Lindsey Hunter answers questions about why Michael Beasley has stepped in his postgame press conference after the Suns beat the Lakers at home. Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat also discuss the win.
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Speculation was all over the map on the crowd's collective reaction to the return of Steve to the place he made his home for 10 years of his playing life.

On one hand, these Suns fans are season ticket holders who are sick of hearing fellow "fans" cheer for Laker players every time they visit US Airways Center. They are tired of season-ticket brethren posting and selling their prime game tickets to denizens of the enemy. I personally dislike attending Suns/Lakers games in Phoenix as a fan because of the sea of yellow and incessant trash talking carried on by their groupies.

So you can understand the primal need to boo anyone in a Laker uniform. Nash himself said at the beginning of free agency that he couldn't ever see himself as a Laker but "poof" there he was.

On the other hand, Steve Nash's best years were in Phoenix and we all loved him. He made the Suns the best show on hardwood for more than four years, turning this middling market into must-see national TV while the Suns made ill-fated run after ill-fated run at the Finals.

We knew there would be some boos. And we knew there would be some cheers. The question was which would drown out the other.

We got our answer when Nash was introduced last in the Lakers' starting lineup. What started with a mix of cheers and boos was quickly drowned in a standing ovation and prolonged raucous hooting and hollering.

"It was a great reception, obviously this is a very special place for me," Nash said later. "To be in front of these incredible fans -- I'm very grateful for the reception but also for my time here, which was the best years of my life."

Nash seemed to take this visit personally. He showed up late last night with his teammates and spent the day with his kids, who still reside in Phoenix. Before the game, he talked to the media for a few minutes about how the game was special, the arena was special and the fans were special.

During the game, it appeared that Nash wanted to be anywhere but on the hated Lakers. He was slow, tentative and quick to defer to Kobe Bryant, who was all too willing to dominate the ball. In this latest incarnation of Laker offense, Nash has been relegated to spot-up shooter.

On the opening possession, Bryant ran the offense, drew the defense and got Nash a wide-open three - which Nash clanked.

About midway through the first quarter, with the home team nursing a small lead, the Suns ran a video tribute to Nash on the big screens. Again, it started with a smattering of boos with the cheers, but as highlight after highlight ran by of Nash's layups, threes, passes and plethora of haircuts, the applause grew to a crescendo not heard in US Airways Center in a long, long time. The cheering was so loud by the end of the timeout that Nash felt compelled to wave and clap his hands as he retook the court.

"Very flattering and very sweet of the organization," he said. "It was very kind of them."

Word from the Suns is that the tribute was meant strictly for in-game promotion and was not intended to be made available to fans, though I suspect something will make the internets if it hasn't already.

Throughout the game, Nash was slow on defense and offense - on rare times he had the ball - and finished the first half with 0 assists. For the game, he had a measly 11 points and 2 assists while Kobe continued to run the offense.

After the game, Nash acknowledged his small role on the Lakers coupled with a "stagnant" fourth quarter offense and noted that, "I think I can help."

Well duh. The two-time MVP, leader of (I think) 7 straight #1 finishes in offensive efficiency just might help the Lakers score more than 86 points if given the chance.

But on a team with prima donnas like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

"We have been playing well lately," Kobe said after the game, despite his team's record (20-26) and inability to close out the Suns. "I'm not concerned."

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Well, part of the problem with the Los Angeles Lakers (20-26) may be that they are not on the same page internally, so therefore are not producing on game day.

After a tough loss to a struggling Phoenix Suns (16-30) team that has let their head coach go, rebuilt the coaching staff, and moved in a different direction with their players roles, the team has to be searching.

Part of the problem is the perception of the offense.

When asked about the offense Steve Nash labeled it "stagnant" and elaborated on his role with the team.

"I think I can help. I definitely think I can score and setup my teammates especially in the fourth quarter I can take some pressure off of Kobe (Bryant). Those are things we still have to work out and find that balance."

Basically what the two-time MVP, six time assist leader, and arguably the best all-around shooter in NBA history is saying is that he can do something more on the court than sitting on the perimeter waiting for an open shot. Steve Nash has been reduced to this teams Steve Kerr, or Steve Blake.

On the flip side of that there is Kobe Bryant who feels this team is utilizing Nash to his full potential on offense.

"We get it to him and he penetrates and makes plays for others. He shoots when he has opportunities -- I think he's doing well."

Right now Nash is averaging his lowest point total in 13 years (11.5), lowest assist total in nine years, and has the third lowest usage rate in his 16 year career.

Is that using Steve Nash to his potential on offense?

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Other Lakers News Bullets:

*Dwight Howard re-injured his right shoulder tonight in the third quarter. He described the injury as "really sore and besides the first one, the most painful." when he injured the shoulder.

The treatment for this?

"Rest. Try not to get into positions where I can hurt it, but that is hard when I am playing."

Will you need to sit out?

"I don't want to, but we'll see."

Will you shut it down?

"I never said anything about shutting it down."

Howard needs rest and time to heal his shoulder, but is not thinking about taking anytime off, or surgery, or shutting it down in general. The injury is fresh, but a lot of contradictions here from Howard.

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