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NBA PLAYOFFS

Aging really isn't part of the process for Suns' Steve Nash

As the Lakers may be about to discover in the Western Conference finals, the 36-year-old All-Star point guard appears to be as good as ever, playing to a level that recalls his MVP seasons of 2004-05 and '05-06.

May 15, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

Reporting from Phoenix -- Yea, so it is written in professional sports scripture, somewhere between autograph etiquette and the thing about saying you gave 110%:

Once athletes reach 35, they begin to age like milk.

Golfers, pitchers, kickers and Brett Favre notwithstanding, once that mark is reached, speed diminishes, skills dull — and production plummets.

Except for 36-year-old Steve Nash, who has aged like wine and is arguably playing the best basketball of his 14-year NBA career.

Nash leads the Phoenix Suns into a Western Conference finals showdown with the Lakers that starts Monday, and statistically the point guard is comparable to his back-to-back-MVP self from the 2004-05 and '05-06 seasons.

Then, he averaged 17.2 points and 11 assists. This season, he was good for 16.5 and 11.

"I would consider him MVP again," Suns guard Leandro Barbosa said.

Nash still glides about the court, finding open teammates in ways others cannot and scoring with his robotically-accurate shooting stroke.

But though his quickness hasn't noticeably faded, many figured his impact would, especially after last season's train wreck.

To recap:

Terry Porter replaced coach Mike D'Antoni after D'Antoni left to coach the Knicks, and then tried to fix an offense that wasn't broken.

Porter slowed the breakneck pace favored by D'Antoni, partly to accommodate Shaquille O'Neal, whom the Suns got in a deal with Miami.

With O'Neal, the Suns began to sink and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since Nash arrived in Phoenix in '04.

Porter was canned in February 2009 and replaced by Alvin Gentry, who fixed the offense, making it breakneck again.

With O'Neal traded to Cleveland last summer, all seemed right, particularly Nash, who Gentry said seemed re-energized.

"He had gone through just a nightmare," Gentry said. "This is the way he had played and had the most success."

But when Nash signed a two-year contract extension that summer, speculators called it his settling down, figuring he'd ride things out in Phoenix and retire after his Suns set to watch the sunset.

Nash, though, wasn't one to settle. He knew where his career was going, and it wasn't into the twilight.

"I didn't care what people said," Nash said. "I felt like I had an opportunity to play with great people and build a really good team. I didn't know if we'd be Western Conference finalists, but I thought we'd be a playoff team."

The Suns are now eight wins from a championship, one of the few accomplishments eluding Nash, who has all the trophies, adoring fans, magazine spreads and instructional videos a pro athlete could want.

"[Gentry] deserves tons of credit," Nash said. "He's been phenomenal this year. Our team has really improved under him."

The Suns' success has come with an overhauled roster since they last reached the conference finals in 2006. Nash, Barbosa and Amare Stoudemire are the only holdovers).

"This isn't a team that is, perhaps, like the Lakers, who have been now in the [NBA] Finals, won it, come back again, [and] have had three and four years together," Nash said. "We've got a lot of new guys and a new game plan this season."

Nash's game plan, though, has never wavered, and it starts with taking care of his body, the principal reason he hasn't worn down.

His diet is without fried foods and synthetic sweeteners; he eats fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables instead. In-season and off-season training, like soccer, helps too, but Nash also searches constantly for new and unorthodox exercise methods.

"I've never seen anybody who's intellectually pursued the conditioning and athletic abilities he has," Suns General Manager Steve Kerr said.

Core, or midsection, strength has helped Nash maintain his agility while decreasing his chances of getting injured. Kerr said some of those exercises are "fascinating to watch."

"He'll go into a full 360, then a knee-bend right into a shot," Kerr said. "He'll do 10 of those. And if you tried to do it, you'd be too dizzy to shoot, but with Steve, it's become such a part of his routine that his balance and his core strength are off the charts."

Kerr said he believes Nash is a better athlete now than eight years ago. Nash said he isn't sure about that, "but I'm close."

"I have experience and familiarity so I think I'm at a similar level that I have been at for the last six years," he said.

Routine, as evidenced by his signature shooting form, has also helped him become one of basketball's best-ever shooters.

This season included, Nash is the only player to shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range and 90% from the free-throw line in four different seasons. ( Larry Bird is the only other player to even do that twice.)

John Stockton played until he was 41 and Jason Kidd is 37 and still going, but even at 36, Nash is still among the NBA's finest point guards.

He said he'd "love to" finish his career in Phoenix and that he came back because he "felt a sense of loyalty to the fans, the community and my teammates."

Those fellow players say he has been a stronger leader and more vocal this year, perhaps realizing he can fight time for only so long.

Still, Barbosa said, "If he needs to prove something, he already did."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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