Which raises a question: Did the man make the system, or did the system make the man?
"When a guy can make plays 80 to 85 percent of the time," says Milwaukee Bucks point guard Maurice Williams, beginning a long paean to Nash (abridged version follows), "when he can pass, he can make runners, floaters, and ... he'll burn you with a jumper too.... I mean, he's awesome. The system doesn't work without Steve Nash."
Gilbert Arenas, the Washington Wizards' point guard, offers a mild dissent. In the Phoenix system, he says, Nash "gets to control the game with his ball movement. He is a probe--he can look for his teammates, shoot the three. The system helps what he does." Clearly, Nash wouldn't be as effective in a walk-it-up offense, and the Suns clearly would be an average team or worse without him. Yet there seemed to be more than a little magic swirling about the Canadian Kid last season, and with magic comes skepticism: Could he do it again?
Nash's play over the first three months of this season provided the answer: Yes. Although Nash's primary receiver last season, the fleet and high-flying Stoudemire, has yet to play a minute because of left-knee surgery, and opponents had all summer to plot ways to thwart the Suns' fast break, Phoenix was the Pacific Division leader again with a 26-13 record through last Saturday's games, third best in the West. Nash was averaging more minutes than last season (37.1 to 34.3), more points (18.7 to 15.5) and almost as many assists (11.4 to 11.5). He still tucks his hair behind his ears (his wife, Alejandra, likes it long), licks his fingers ("No," he says, "I don't think about the bacteria") and puts the team on his back, always keeping his head up, always looking for seams and always finding the open man--sometimes with an outrageous wraparound pass delivered with his off hand.
Another unusual aspect of Nash's game is the amount of dribbling he does. But that's a good thing too because he doesn't go side to side so much as he is constantly on the attack. He may be the best ever at driving toward the hole and, finding his way blocked, continuing under the basket, like a bus passenger who doesn't like the look of his stop and keeps on going. "The beauty of Steve holding it," says Raja Bell, Nash's starting backcourtmate, "is that you know he's holding it to help you out. There are times when I say, 'O.K., do you want me to float up the lane or back cut?' And he'll always have an answer. You learn every day to be ready for when that ball hits you in the hands because--trust me--it will hit you in the hands."
When Nash is not pulling up beyond the arc (his three-point accuracy is above 40%), he can corkscrew his body to get off a reverse in the lane or launch a deadly fadeaway. And because his head is always up, he can find a good space from which to shoot even as he's driving at top speed. Thus his shots are rarely blocked, though he's not a great leaper.
Defensively, Nash is hardly a stopper, but he's gotten better at keeping opponents in front of him, notably Arenas (16 points against Nash on 7-of-23 shooting on Dec. 28), the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson (16 points on 7-of-23 on Jan. 4) and the Golden State Warriors' Baron Davis (22 points on 8-of-23 on Jan. 12). All told, last season's MVP might be playing even better this season. "You could make that case," says D'Antoni, "but it seemed like Steve went 60 games last year before he made a mistake, so I'm not going to say it."
When pressed, Nash will concede that this season has been harder than last. "The big difference is, without Amar�, they can load up on me a little bit," he says. Actually, a lot. On more than one occasion this season the Suns' coaches have stopped a film session and noted five defenders around Nash while his teammates stood watching. But even then the Canadian Kid is just as likely to go behind his back, spin, lick his fingers, fix his hair and splice the defense with a pass to a cutter for a dunk.
Nash also admits that last season's MVP award is sometimes on his mind. He remembers all the thrills that came with it--the congratulatory phone call from 1957 MVP Bob Cousy and the one from 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett, who "welcomed me to the club," Nash says--and he thinks, What if I fall on my face? "But I'd be thinking that anyway," he says, with a smile. "People have always told me I'd fall on my face, that I wouldn't make it this far. But here I am."
And here he is after a practice, grinning as he watches a trash-talk-fueled shooting contest between Bell and gunning guard Eddie House. For someone who's the center of attention during the game, Nash skirts the perimeter of the Suns' social circle. He will lend a quip now and then, but usually he doesn't stay in one place long enough to get involved. Whenever there's a break in practice, for instance, Nash takes off and shoots, working his way around the gym's baskets.