- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- It was another Game 4 at Staples Center on another Sunday afternoon, setting up the NBA's primo set-up man with a prime opportunity to banish some year-old ghosts.
Except for one thing.
Steve Nash wasn't connecting those dots until some media schlub pointed it out to him postgame.
"That's the kind of stuff you guys think about," Nash said.
Guilty as charged.
It was difficult -- at least for some of us on press row -- to watch Nash riddle the Los Angeles Lakers with an effortless 23 assists in this 113-100 Game 4 cruise for the Phoenix Suns and not flash back to how different the ending was for him on April 30, 2006.
Then: Two controversial non-calls resulted in two Nash turnovers, leading to a pair of buzzer-beating buckets by Kobe Bryant at the end of regulation and overtime and shoving the Suns into a seemingly fatal 3-1 hole that raised the volume on the debate about Nash's MVP worthiness.
Now: It's the Suns who hold the apparent security of a 3-1 series lead over Kobe and Co. after Nash treated a courtside witness named Magic Johnson to the modern-day equivalent of Showtime basketball, falling just one assist shy of the single-game playoff record shared by the Laker legend and John Stockton.
"I was aware Magic was courtside," Nash said. "I was trying to show off, but he's not really giving me any high-fives these days."
That's because the Suns' increasing dominance in this series makes it very probable that this Game 4 was the final home date of the Lakers' season, which makes Phoenix unique among the West's Big Three. You have to look hard for order and expectancy in this conference -- where the eighth-seeded Warriors have been bullying and psyching out the 67-win Mavericks and where the sixth-seeded Nuggets saddled the proven champs from San Antonio with a 1-0 deficit -- but here it is.
The Suns can close L.A. out and secure the quick ending to this first-round matchup that they've been talking about for weeks by winning Wednesday's Game 5 at home. Perhaps they'll surprise us, but the Lakers weren't exactly bubbling with optimism after the aggressive trapping defense they foisted upon Nash in the second half of Thursday's Game 3 got shredded.
Nash had eight assists in the first quarter alone and nearly maintained that gaudy pace in the next quarter, trotting in at halftime with 15 to tie a playoff record shared by Magic and Doc Rivers. Yet it's worth noting that the Suns were only 4-for-16 from the 3-point line at that stage and never really got hot from the outside.
"If we shoot the ball well," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni claimed, "he'd have had 30 assists."
Turns out 23 was plenty, with the Lakers managing only 21 as a team and Amare Stoudemire dominating the paint at both ends with 27 points and 21 boards. Lamar Odom was brave again with 19 points, 13 boards and five assists despite a new elbow injury (with a new black sleeve on his left arm) to go with his shoulder problems -- and Bryant quietly made a triple-double run with 31 points, nine assists and seven boards -- but the Suns had the audacity to stretch their lead from nine to 14 in the final 3:03 of the third quarter when Nash was getting his last rest before crunch time.
The Lakers never got within 11 thereafter, meaning that they never got close enough for Bryant -- who had more assists (four) than points (three) in the fourth quarter -- to try to win it for them. Which should explain why the building had a funeral feel for much of the second half.
Nash explained that, in Game 3, he tried to suck in L.A.'s defenders as closely as possible to loosen things up for his teammates. During the 48-hour wait for Game 4, Nash promised himself to keep attacking the defenders coming at him and push the tempo even more than usual instead of trying to bait the Lakers into double-teams.
"I don't care what the defense is," said Suns guard Raja Bell. "Give him a couple days and Steve will find a way to burn it."
Streams of fans headed for the exits early, clutching the free Laker mugs handed out to customers on the way in. (Insert your own joke here about Sunday's giveaway being handy for an evening of sorrow-drowning.) The most memorable noise from the home crowd might have been the first-quarter roar when a clip of Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat being swept out of the first round flashed on the video board overhead.
The locals, in the end, didn't even get to see Nash break the record, because he managed only three assists in the final period before exiting with 1:02 to play.
"My kid's got to go to college," D'Antoni said when asked why he didn't leave his point guard in to make history. "I can't let [Nash] get hurt."
When the laughter stopped, Nash did finally admit that he might not have gotten over last spring's Game 4 so easily (a) if Phoenix hadn't rallied to win the series and (b) if he didn't later see the widely circulated photo of Luke Walton's foot extending past the sideline on the tie-up that led to the jump ball that led to Kobe's game-winning shot at the OT horn. The picture, in other words, only added to the Suns' belief that a jump ball shouldn't have been called in that situation.
You suspect that falling short of the magical 24-assist plateau isn't going to stay with Nash very long, either.
His buddy Bell chimed in: "Twenty-three assists is all right. If you're into that."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
A year ago, the Lakers put the Suns in a 3-1 hole. Now Phoenix and point guard Steve Nash have L.A.'s number, writes Marc Stein.