Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant have a laugh during a game. (Harry How / Getty Images )
The agitation stayed with Kobe Bryant.
He's years removed from it all. Yet, the Lakers’ star still harbors resentment toward the Phoenix Suns after falling to them in the first round of two consecutive postseasons. So much so that he admits last season, “I don’t like them.”
The frustration lingered with Steve Nash.
Two regular-season MVP awards and remaining one of the game’s best-ever passers aside, Nash acknowledges his thirst for an NBA championship. Why that hasn’t happened yet partly involves the Lakers, who halted the Suns’ momentum in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals. So as Nash mulled his free-agent options, he conceded a few weeks ago, “It would be hard to put on a Lakers jersey.”
That all changed within the past week.
Nash switched course by joining the Lakers through a sign-and-trade while the Suns received a $8.9-million trade exception and four draft picks. Bryant changed course by welcoming the deal with open arms after discussing the idea with Nash on the phone. The obvious reason: Both sense that the chance to win a championship is closing. Bryant already has five rings but remains hungry for more before his contract ends after the 2013-14 season. Nash still doesn’t have one and figures that teaming with an aging albeit talented Lakers’ squad would give him the best chance.
The Lakers become instant championship contenders because Nash and Bryant share similar characteristics albeit in different ways.
They both maximize their game.
Despite nursing a strained wrist, Bryant finished second in scoring last season (27.9) to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant (28.0). The Laker guard, who will turn 34 in August, hopes to turn back the clock by having another procedure in Germany this summer on his surgically repaired right knee. Nash, at age 38, averaged a a double-double in points (12.5) and assists (10.7) for the seventh time in the last eight seasons by monitoring his minutes (31.6) and keeping a strict workout regiment. Before the 2010 Western Conference semifinals, Nash led the Suns to a series-clinching win against San Antonio despite needing six stitches to cover a swollen right eye after taking an errant elbow from Spurs forward Tim Duncan.
Nash and Bryant remain fierce competitors.
Bryant had harbored ill will toward the Suns partly because Nash won the 2005-06 NBA award even though the Lakers’ star led the league in scoring. It’s no coincidence then that Bryant averaged 33.7 points on 52.1% along with 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the 2010 Western Conference Finals against Phoenix. Once he made a fall-back jumper that clinched Game 6, Bryant couldn’t help but take a few steps toward Suns Coach Alvin Gentry and give him a light tap.
Nash didn’t show deep-seated hatred. But he hardly backed down. Former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson accused him of carrying the ball too often prior to their 2010 playoff series. Nash laughed it off and then fired back. He mentioned how Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, dubbed “the best coach of the league,” didn’t complain about his ball handling in the previous playoff series. Then, as the Lakers took a 3-2 series lead, Nash guaranteed the Suns would return to L.A. for a Game 7.
Still, Bryant and Nash play a different way.
Bryant has climbed to fifth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, while Nash remains in fifth place on the NBA’s all-time assist list. Bryant thrives on punishing double teams by making difficult shots, while Nash thrives on punishing double teams by simply threading the needle.
But Bryant and Nash need more than each other so the burden doesn’t fall just on them. Nash had a league-high 5.6 turnovers, while Bryant averaged 4.4. Bryant often handled the ball and shot in isolation. Nash often handled the ball and had very few options to set up. Nash will make it easier for Bryant to find shots in the post and the elbows. Bryant will make it easier for Nash to run the offense with fluidity.
Neither Bryant and Nash saw such a pairing happening beforehand. They remained too consumed with disliking each other. But as the two are on the tail-end of their career, it’s clear that their history as 1996 draft selections, their complementary skill sets and obsessions trump all that. The Lakers’ star admitted as much to reporters in Las Vegas as Team USA began preparing for the 2012 Olympics.
Said Bryant: “That bond is much bigger than the rivalry we had with Phoenix.”
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