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Nash spreads it around

The Toronto Raptors went into Sunday afternoon's game undermanned, and ended up overwhelmed.

The Toronto Raptors went into Sunday afternoon's game undermanned, and ended up overwhelmed.

Facing Steve Nash will do that to a team.

The Victoria native dished out a season-high 18 assists and had a pivotal basket with 12.9 seconds left as the Phoenix Suns downed Toronto 117-113, sending the Raptors to their fifth straight loss.

Amare Stoudemire led the way with 30 points for the Suns (23-15), who ended a two-game losing streak in the opener of a six-game East Coast road trip. Jason Richardson added 17 points, while Shaquille O'Neal and Matt Barnes had 16 each.

Nash finished with just nine points on 2-of-6 shooting, but said he didn't mind letting his teammates do all the scoring.

"We've got a lot of mouths to feed," joked Nash, who had assists on Phoenix's first six field goals. "If it's working like that, I'm happy to sacrifice my (shots). I'm happy to get my teammates involved, and (Sunday) it was working."

Toronto stayed in it until the end despite having just nine available players after forward Jason Kapono came down with flu-like symptoms and centre Jermaine O'Neal was ruled out just before tip-off to rest his injured right knee. Starting point guard Jose Calderon (hamstring) sat out for the eighth time in nine games.

Looking to mix things up, the Raptors went with a starting rotation featuring Anthony Parker at the point and Joey Graham at shooting guard. The duo played well - Parker had 26 points, while Graham added a career-high 22 - but Toronto fell short against a Suns team that can still play at a breakneck pace despite the departure of offensive-minded coach Mike D'Antoni in the off-season.

Despite another stinging loss, Raptors coach Jay Triano applauded his players' efforts.

"I thought that our guys played tough," said Triano. "I thought they played hard, and they played extended minutes. I really like the way that Jamario, Joey and (Anthony) played together on the perimeter.

"I thought that they did a nice job of keeping the ball moving and we got some good things offensively from it."

Chris Bosh added 20 points for the Raptors (16-26), who fell victim to another classic Nash performance in front of an electric crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre.

"There's a reason he was the MVP," said Triano, who coached Nash for several years with the national team. "He controls the tempo of the game, and makes everybody who plays with him better.

"Guys who have been traded from that team, they may not believe it when they're a Sun, but they certainly believe it when they go somewhere else."

Trailing 95-87 entering the fourth quarter, Toronto cut the lead to two on a short Bosh jumper and a Roko Ukic layup, then tied it with seven minutes left when Graham laid in his own miss. Phoenix built the lead back to seven before Toronto responded again, closing to within one on a Parker jumper moments after O'Neal had fouled out of the game.

Nash then found Barnes and Stoudemire for wide-open shots for his 17th and 18th assists of the game.

A Parker layup made it 114-113 with 1:18 left, but he missed a three-pointer with 38 seconds left that would have given Toronto the lead. Nash followed with a driving layup in traffic, and Parker and Bosh missed layups on Toronto's final possession.

"We played better," said Parker, "but it's just so disappointing time and time again to come up short at the end."

Nash was cheered loudly during pre-game introductions, then shared a hug with Triano prior to tip-off. The two were instrumental in helping Canada reach the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and remain close friends.

"It was a fun afternoon for me," said Nash. "(I'm) sad for Jay, because I thought he did a great job, but it's such a great day for me to come back here and get such a nice ovation from the fans, and to play against Jay.

"It's such a pleasure to get to come back here once a year. I wish we could come back every week."

The Raptors are glad he won't be.

While Nash was a virtual non-factor in the shooting department - his first field goal came with 3:02 left in the third quarter - he was a major contributor to the Suns' 29 assists, two off their season high. He also went 5-for-5 from the line and added six rebounds.

Phoenix shot 54.4 per cent compared to 53.7 for Toronto, and outrebounded the Raptors 36-35.

The Raptors broke out to a 9-2 start, and they had Shaq to thank for it. The seven-foot-one behemoth tossed up an airball, fumbled a Nash pass down low for a turnover and drew two fouls - all in the opening 2 1/2 minutes - to earn a spot on the bench.

Toronto made eight of its first nine shots to extend the lead to 11 before the Suns stormed back, reducing the deficit to one on the strength of three-pointers from Richardson and Hill. A Barnes three with less than a second left in the quarter gave Phoenix a 36-34 lead after one.

Speedy guard Leandro Barbosa took over in the second quarter, scoring 10 points in the first five minutes - capped by an acrobatic reverse layup on a Nash seeing-eye bounce pass - as the Suns' advantage grew to 10. Toronto whittled it down to three, but a Stoudemire alley-oop dunk off a Nash feed highlighted an 8-0 run late in the quarter as Phoenix enjoyed a 71-63 lead at the break.

"The biggest problem that we had in the first half was transition points," said Triano. "This team is too good. if you give them odd-numbered looks they are going to pick you apart."

Nash finished the half scoreless - missing his only shot attempt - but dished out 11 assists.

Notes: Nash reiterated that he would like to play in Toronto if given the chance, but stressed that it's far from a slam dunk. "Playing in Toronto would obviously be a dream come true in a lot of ways," said Nash, who sees himself playing three more seasons after this one. "But I love playing in Phoenix. It's a year and a half away, but if the Phoenix Suns are playing well, and I'm a part of their plans, that's probably going to be the No. 1 priority. If it's not, Toronto would at the top of the list as far as considering other markets to play in." ... O'Neal, Calderon and Kapono are all expected to travel with the Raptors on their three-game road trip beginning Monday in Atlanta. ... The Raptors have lost nine straight games against the Suns. Their last win over Phoenix came on Feb. 10, 2004 - the last meeting before Nash re-signed with the team. ... Calderon and Nash own the NBA's longest consecutive free-throw streaks. Calderon has hit 79 straight from the line, while Nash has made 53 in a row.

 
 
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