Lakers point guard Steve Nash drives past Jazz point guard John Lucas III… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Every day, when his latest nagging injury sends doubts flitting through his mind, Steve Nash conducts an internal dialogue that's part checklist and part pep talk.
The subject is always the same. The answers vary according to what most pains the Lakers point guard on any given day.
"There always is a conversation going on in your head, but usually I win those and I feel resolute," he said.
"They go like, 'Can I do this? I don't know. Of course I can,' " he said. "Some days it might take me a beat or two longer to say, 'Of course I can,' but usually when the jet lag is gone I come back quick."
Nash, who will be 40 in February, didn't fully participate in practice Thursday as the team prepared for its exhibition finale against Utah on Friday at Honda Center. He hasn't made it through a complete practice yet, but expects to ready for the opener Tuesday against the Clippers.
A few weeks ago, Nash was hampered by a left ankle problem. More recently he has had a stiff neck, which he believes stems from his longstanding back problems
Pau Gasol said Tuesday he was "a little bit concerned" that Nash hasn't been 100% healthy. Kobe Bryant echoed that Thursday.
"A little bit, yeah. Those injuries, you want to try to knock out as quickly as you can," Bryant said. "He's been a trouper. He's been trying to get out on the floor and practice with the guys as much as he possibly can."
The buzzword in the Lakers' camp seems to be "athletic." Bryant defined it as "the areas that we were weak at last year, in terms of creating turnovers, getting easy baskets and transition defense, are areas that we should be strong in this year." They also figure to have a better bench, especially with Jordan Farmar to share backup point guard minutes with Steve Blake.
But with Bryant sidelined for who knows how long and with Gasol adjusting to playing center again in Coach Mike D'Antoni's post-Dwight Howard system, the Lakers need a vintage Nash to drive them. They don't have one.
Time and injuries have finally done what few NBA opponents could accomplish: diminish Steve Nash's considerable skills.
"Obviously we've got to get Kobe back and Steve Nash needs to stay healthy and Pau needs to have a great year," D'Antoni said. "If those things come around then we can be better than last year."
And if they don't come around?
Nash didn't play the second half of the Lakers' last two exhibitions and D'Antoni was unclear whether Nash will play Friday. It's all sadly familiar. Nash's first Lakers season was spoiled by a fractured leg and a hip/back injury that caused him to miss 32 regular-season games and two playoff games. He averaged 32.5 minutes, and his average of 6.7 assists was his lowest since he was a part-time starter with Dallas in the 1999-200 season. Without him, the offense D'Antoni designed for him to run suffered.
"There's no doubt that age ultimately wins all battles, but at the same time, I'm not going to concede anything," Nash said.
"I still feel like I can do everything I've always done. It's just a matter of trying to get my body in a place where I can do it consistently and recover and be able to find that health to execute it. And that's the challenge. I've worked a ton this summer to put myself in this position and I think I've got a chance to overcome a lot of it, but there is a day-to-day struggle."
He might concede a bit by not playing every back-to-back game. Nash said D'Antoni would like to see that. Nash hasn't embraced the idea, but he hasn't rejected it.
"My nature has always been to push through, throughout my career, and now maybe is the time where I need to just be realistic," he said. "I don't want to be closed to anything that might ultimately help myself or the team."
It helps, he said, that Blake and Farmar provide depth. "Steve Blake's played great and Jordan's been terrific. So we can mix and match and share minutes and I think it gives us a nice opportunity to give people different looks," Nash said.
But they're not him. They don't have his vision or Hall of Fame credentials. If Nash's physical problems continue, D'Antoni said, the Lakers will "just try to manage as best we can. ... We're trying to cover our bases a little bit, but you don't substitute a Nash or a Kobe or a Pau. They're still going to have to carry a lot of the load."
If they can't, if one day Nash's daily dialogue concludes with "I can't," this will be a long and unhappy season. "It's a day-to-day struggle," he said, "and I'm just fighting as much as I can to get ready to get through this year."