VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Phoenix Suns are back to their trademark run-and-gun small ball and that suits Steve Nash just fine.
The energetic veteran point guard from Victoria is looking to do more dashing and dishing after the Suns missed the NBA playoffs for the first time in five years despite a decent 46-36 record.
Lumbering Shaquille O’Neal, a.k.a. the Big Cactus, is gone from the desert, joining LeBron James after a trade to Cleveland. Nash said the move will change the Suns’ style, adding he expects more chances to use his improvisational skills.
“Were not a big bulky team,” Nash said Thursday before the Suns played an exhibition game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“We’re smaller and more skilled. That allows me to be creative and make plays for my teammates.
“When you walk the ball up the court it’s a little harder to improvise and find space. In the open court, it suits my improvisation and the style of play that I’m more comfortable with.”
However, the Suns were outrebounded 50-28 by the Trail Blazers, including 16-4 on the offensive glass. Shooting guard Brandon Roy led the winners with 22 points.
LaMarcus Aldridge, whose five-year contract extension was announced Thursday, added 17 points as both clubs evened their exhibition records at 4-4. Travis Outlaw also had 17 for the Trail Blazers.
Nash, who led Phoenix with 14 points and seven first-half assists, said the Suns struggled last season over whether to be a running team or one that operated in the half-court offence.
There were also two coaching changes. Terry Porter took over from Mike D’Antoni at the start of the season, then was replaced after 51 games by Alvin Gentry who returned to a more up-tempo style.
A serious eye injury to forward Amare Stoudemire didn’t help.
“We weren’t all making the same movie,” said Nash whose production company is working on a Terry Fox documentary for ESPN. “This year we all feel similar about what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The Suns will miss O’Neal’s 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game but have added mobile centre Channing Frye who has a greater shooting range.
“We’re small without him,” Nash said of Shaq moving on. “In some ways it’s different but at the same time what we gave up in size we got back in a really unified understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Gentry said Nash – who averaged 15.7 points and 9.7 assists last season – has been one of the consistent cogs in the Suns offence.
“When your team’s been the leading scorer in the league for the last eight years and you’re the only constant that is really there, then that speaks volumes about the impact that you have on an offence,” Gentry said.
“He’s a guy that, even at his age, has taken such great care of himself and he’s got such energy in what we do, he just gives the other guys on the floor a lot of confidence.”
Gentry, whose club averaged 118 points a game after he took over from Porter, believes Nash can lead the league in assists again after finishing third in that category last season.
“We’re never going to be a great defensive team but we don’t have to be because were really good offensively,” Gentry said.
Nash, 35, who signed a contract extension with Phoenix last summer, acknowledges his window for an NBA title is closing and the Suns are not rated as contenders this season.
“If we’re not, there’s still a lot to play for,” he said. “Pride. I love my teammates, the city, the organization.
“If we can play to our expectations, that’s rewarding too. Hopefully it will lead us to a championship in the next three years (when his contract expires) but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean I should jump off a bridge or something.”
Nash added that the Suns could be a team that flies under the radar.
“I’m fine with that,” he said. “We probably deserve to be, especially coming off last season. If we don’t make the playoffs, something disappointing has happened this year.”