Nash practices with Suns, targets Tuesday return

PHOENIX -- After testing his sore right shoulder in practice
on Monday, Phoenix point guard Steve Nash said he hopes to return
to the lineup when the Suns visit the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night.

"I didn't feel any setbacks, and hopefully if it feels good
tomorrow morning and again tomorrow night, I'll give it a shot,"
Nash said Monday.

Backup center Kurt Thomas, who has been sidelined since Jan. 15
with an elbow injury, is also expected to return Tuesday night.

But the Pacific Division-leading Suns still won't be completely
healthy as they head into the final 30 games of the regular season.
Forward Boris Diaw is likely to miss a third straight game with
back spasms.

Nash has missed four games since shoulder inflammation kept him
out of the second half of a 113-108 victory at Denver Feb. 5.
Without Nash directing the league's most potent offense, the Suns
have dropped three straight games and slipped 4½ games behind
Dallas in the race for the Western Conference's top playoff seed.

Over the last three seasons, the Suns are 151-49 when Nash plays
and 4-12 when he doesn't, including 2-4 this season.

No wonder coach Mike D'Antoni and Nash's teammates are happy to
see him at practice Monday.

"Steve looked great," D'Antoni said. "His legs looked

Added center Amare Stoudemire, "Steve at 70 percent is still
the best point guard in the league."

Averaging career-bests 19.3 points and 11.8 assists per game,
Nash's biggest contribution comes on offense. But the Suns' biggest
problem in his absence has been defense; they've given up 120, 116
and 114 points in the last three losses.

Nash said the club's struggles won't make him come back if he's
not ready.

"I think I would want to be back if we were rolling," Nash
said. "I think it's important not to be influenced by how the
team's doing and just make sure the shoulder is improving, because
I'd hate to have this be a recurring theme the rest of the way."

Nash said the shoulder isn't as strong or flexible as he'd like.
But he doesn't believe he's risking a longer-term injury by playing
Tuesday night.

"I'm definitely not where I want to be," he said. "But the
shoulder's improved a lot and it's gotten stronger. The
irritation's gone away. So I feel like I'm not at a point where I'm
going to face any more setbacks. Even though I'm not where I want
to be, I think that I'll continue to strengthen from here on out
and progress rather than have a stop-and-start situation."

The Suns clearly need their two-time NBA MVP if they hope to
catch the Mavericks, who have won nine straight games to open up
some room between the clubs in the chase for the West's top seed.
Last year, the Mavericks had homecourt advantage and defeated the
Suns 4-games-to-2 in the Western Conference finals.

After facing the Clippers, the Suns come home to play the woeful
Boston Celtics Wednesday night. Then Phoenix sets out on a
four-games-in-six-nights swing through Minnesota, Atlanta, Indiana
and Philadelphia.

"We're going to have to sharpen our performance," Nash said.
"I think the break will be good for us to regroup. Hopefully, we
can finish this season on a high and make the improvements we need
for the playoffs, and tomorrow night's the ideal time to start."