SALT LAKE CITY — He may be 38 years old and lost of bit of his speed and quickness, but Steve Nash is still one of the premier point guards in the NBA.
And for the Utah Jazz to win Tuesday night's huge game with Phoenix and thus advance to the first round of the NBA playoffs, they must stop Nash.
Well, that's probably impossible, but if the Jazz don't at least slow the Suns' ageless point guard down, it's likely the Suns will grab the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs and leave the Jazz on the outside.
If not for Nash, the Jazz wouldn't be in the precarious position to begin with. Nash has helped lead the Suns to two victories in two tries over the Jazz this year.
In a mid-March game in Phoenix, Nash had 12 points and 16 assists in 120-111 victory. Then three weeks ago at EnergySolutions Arena, Nash's numbers weren't as good (13 points, 9 assists), but his two baskets in the final 14 seconds, including a 15-foot leaner in the lane with 1.7 seconds left, gave the Suns a 107-105 victory.
Nobody knows more about the importance of slowing down Nash than the two Jazz point guards, Devin Harris and Jamaal Tinsley.
"He's one of the smartest," said Harris. "He's up there in age, but he's still effective in doing the things he does well and they depend a lot on him to get guys shots and he's going to take the big shots. So obviously, he's still doing things quite well."
Tinsley has played dozens and dozens of games against Nash over the past decade and knows him well. He calls Nash "a good person and a good basketball player," who can still get it done on the court.
"He's not as quick, but he still does what he does — pass the ball, make shots, get everybody involved — he makes the team better," Tinsley said. "He's crafty. He amazing in that pick and roll. Every game he does the same thing. It might be a pass and you're like 'How did he see that?' He still gets the job done."
Tinsley believes the key to stopping Nash is to make him shoot outside over the guards. He says Nash is most dangerous when he gets into the paint, where he can dish off to open men or shoot over a retreating big man.
Harris believes the best way to slow Nash down is by playing well on offense against him and try to tire him out a bit.
"When you play against a point guard that does two things really well — he gets others involved as well as scores at a high rate ... the best thing you can do is make him play defense," Harris said. "He's going to do what he does offensively, but we've got to attack him at the other end, so he can't just coast on offense all the time."
Utah Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek used to play against Nash in the late 1990s before Nash was a full-time starter. He compares Nash to his former teammate John Stockton, saying "you play him one way, he's got his adjustments, so no matter what you do, he knows how to counter. That's what makes him tough. He's obviously a very smart player. He probably knows what the other team's going to do before the play even starts."
The numbers for the 16-year veteran and former two-time MVP have gradually dropped since he averaged 17.6 points and a career-high 11.6 assists in 2006-07.
Still, Nash is not far off his career best with 11.3 assists per game this year, which leads the NBA. And although his scoring average has dropped to 12.8 points, he is shooting a career-best 53.8 percent from the field and a solid 39.6 from 3-point range.
So what can you do to at least contain Nash?
Not much, according to Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin.
"He's seen it all, so you're not going to surprise the guy," Corbin said. "He has been doing it for so long. He's in tremendous shape and his wisdom and knowledge of the game is expanded, so whatever we do, he's going to make adjustments. We have to make sure we're on his body, being physical and making him work for everything."