- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- He had to swallow hard on the question. Pausing, for a long second, to gulp on whatever well of positivity he could find in this ugly moment before answering.
Once again, Steve Nash's Phoenix Suns had come up the lovable losers. The guys looking on the bright side and drawing strength from how well they'd played before the other guys end up celebrating at midcourt after some crazy, ridiculous game-winning play.
"You know," Nash said, in a voice more gravelly than usual, "everything's OK. Maybe we deserved this game, maybe we didn't. But we lost. And they held home court. We'll go back and do the same and we'll come back here for Game 7."
This latest round of playoff heartbreak -- courtesy of an opportunistic putback from Ron Artest to give the Los Angeles Lakers a 103-101 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center -- came after Nash (29 points, 11 assists) had brilliantly led the Suns back from an 18-point, second-half deficit.
He was at his best down the stretch. In the final, frenetic 5:22 of the fourth quarter, Nash scored nine points. His 17-foot jumper with 51.5 seconds left pulled Phoenix to within 101-98, setting the stage for Jason Richardson's banked-in 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining to tie the score at 101-101.
But as has happened for Nash too often in what undoubtedly will end as a Hall of Fame career, playoff glory was not to be, leaving him to swallow hard on the latest version of a question he has had to answer on too many sad nights at this time of year.
This time, the question came straight on:
Do you ever get tired of trying to find a positive after games like this?
"No," he said. But then again, what else could he say?
"I think you have to realize that we lost the game," he explained. "And it doesn't matter how we lost the game."
Oh, but it does. Because for some reason, Nash and his Suns have a way of getting their hearts ripped out in the playoffs, and it's starting to become rather cruel.
Whether it comes on a rare 3-pointer by Tim Duncan (Game 1, 2008 Western Conference first round), the hip of Robert Horry (Game 5, 2007 Western Conference semifinals), the chin of Tony Parker (Game 1, 2007 Western Conference semis) or the hand of Ron Artest (Game 5, 2010 Western Conference finals), somehow it's always the Suns finding a way to look on the bright side before the next game.
Nash has become good at it, so good in fact that his teammates left Staples Center sounding mostly upbeat as they boarded a charter flight back to Phoenix, where Game 6 will be played Saturday night.
"We're disappointed; we're not going to get discouraged, though," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "The first thing Steve said when we went in the locker room was, 'Just forget about this, there's time to concentrate on the next game.' And he's exactly right."
He's right, sure. This series is far from over. But there's got to be a part of him that wonders why it always comes to this.
Why, at age 36 with maybe his last shot at winning it all, must he be on the receiving end of another one of these games?
He's a good guy, he treats others well, is socially conscious and well-read, and among his peers, he's one of the most popular players in the NBA.
At age 36, he has managed to defy conventional wisdom on aging, playing about as spryly as he ever has despite playing the last half of his career with a chronic back problem, and most of this season with a hip problem, each of which he disguises well.
"He just never gets old," Gentry said, almost reverentially. "He never gets old."
If there's a part of him that shows any battle scars, it's his face, of course. This year's round of gashes (bloody eye, broken nose) are just the latest in a career full of knocks to the noggin.
At 178 pounds, he's light but not nearly fragile. A point guard with a rugby player's pain tolerance. But because of his importance to the Suns, his teammates generally pull back a little during scrimmages.
"It's kind of like an unwritten rule," Suns guard Jared Dudley said. "We usually do full-court pressure on the starters, but with Steve I don't really foul him hard, I don't really trap him. Usually, most games I might give someone a push if he's in the air. But you let him go. If it's a foul, everybody stops. You don't want any tweaks or injuries on him.
"He's the face of the franchise, you know. He gets the star treatment, and he should. We need to let him save all his energy for the game because he's got the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time. I don't know how he does it."
If you believe in such things, after all this playoff misery there should be some final, fabulous karmic retribution coming Nash's way at some point. This year, maybe next, or the year after that.
Still, getting this close, this late in his career, does raise the stakes a bit. It's a point he has had to consider but prefers not to.
"It might be," Nash said, when asked if he'd considered this season could be his last shot at a title. "But I always say, and I've felt this way before, and I'll feel this way next year: This is the only stand.
"It's now. You just go for it now and you worry about the future and the past later."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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