2007-02-02 / Sports

Rise of the Phoenix (Suns) Begins With Nash

By John J. Buro

"A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration."

-The Feng Shui Handbook

On the night of the National Hockey League All-Star Game, one of Canada's greatest athletes was playing basketball on the Madison Square Garden floor.

"That," said Steve Nash, the defending two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, "is a bit of a stretch."

Not when it is considered that the last Canadian to win the Art Ross Trophy [league MVP] was Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Hall of Fame center, who copped the award in 1993 and 1996; the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky, with wins in 1986 and 1987, was the last to win in consecutive years.

But, that is typical of Nash, the Phoenix Suns' point guard, who is at his best when he deflects attention. It is never about him -or the 33 occasions he has led in assists- even when it is.

For the second time in 42 games, the winning streak was at 15. It would be so easy for the Suns, winners in 31 of 33 games following a 3-6 start, to take success for granted.

But, no way is that about to happen. For one, Mike D'Antoni, their coach, won't allow it. "This league is very unforgiving," he stated. "We're leading the league [with almost a nine point margin of victory]. Still, that's only three or four baskets difference."

For another, that approach extends to the team's 6'3" general, who runs the most prolific offense in the league.

After tallying 22 points and 14 assists against the New York Knicks in a 112-107 victory at Madison Square Garden on January 24, Nash encountered waves of assorted press types. He leaned against a locker, and readied himself for a barrage of questions. It was the most pressure he faced all evening.

In a few, simple words, he explained that, because the Suns were sluggish throughout the first half [they had scored 127 points in Washington the night before], they should learn a lesson from the scare the 18-26 Knicks threw into them.

"Good teams, with great chemistry and mental toughness," he added, "will have streaks like this. Whatever mental toughness we lack at the start [of a game], we find somewhere in us to win games.

"I certainly won't allow complacency to creep in, and each of us has to be held accountable."

Isiah Thomas, a great floor leader during his day, understands - more than most- what Nash sees on the court.

"Nash is the Joe Montana of point guards," he said appreciatively, "because he has such command of their offense, and knows how they want to play. The system is built around his abilities, and he's masterful at it. He usually finds the right guy, or makes the good play.

"He's really, really, good. And, definitely, one of the best I've ever seen."

One of Thomas' ex-players, now with the Suns, is fortunate to witness this mastery.

"Fans are attracted to us," said Jalen Rose, who was bought out by the Knicks earlier this season, "because we have a style that can win a championship - which would be the next level for this franchise."

Then, he zoomed in on the man who controls the ball.

"Steve is versatile. He can go left, or right. He can shoot the three, or a mid-range. He can finish at the basket. He's also the best passer in the league. He keeps the other four guys [on the floor] happy, as well as the guys on the bench, and the guys in suits."

"It just seems we're moving light years ahead of everyone else," added 6'7" forward Shawn Marion.

But, don't ever believe the game is as easy as it looks, Amare Stoudemire said.

"There's always a challenge, and always room to improve. And, coach will tell us that."

If Nash doesn't tell them first.

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