EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — After every misfortune and injury setback during the most frustrating season of his career, Steve Nash only wants to finish the year on the court with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nash said he is "very confident" he will return from a hamstring injury for Los Angeles' playoff opener at San Antonio on Sunday, hopefully adding another major contributor to the Lakers' late-season surge.
The two-time NBA MVP practiced with his teammates at their training complex Friday, going through half-court offensive drills and testing his injured right hamstring. Nash hasn't played in April, missing Los Angeles' final eight games with the latest injury in a year that began with a broken leg in the Lakers' second game.
"I just don't want to overpromise and get ahead of myself," Nash said. "The last almost three weeks now, I wake up every morning, thinking, 'Today's the day,' and then I want to hang myself after practice, so I don't want to overpromise."
Nash hasn't been able to run at full speed, a serious problem for a floor leader with a game predicated on movement and anticipation. But after receiving recent epidural injections, Nash believes he can be in the starting lineup when the seventh-seeded Lakers open in San Antonio.
"Especially the last two weeks, I couldn't sprint," he said. "There was just too much inhibition from the nerve, and it was just shutting me down whenever I tried to cover some ground. It's hard to play in an NBA game if you can't change ends of the floor. That's the last little bit I'm hoping for, and it's feeling pretty close."
Nash's first season with the Lakers has been a nightmare in many respects, yet he's confident it isn't over. Even while watching the Lakers' late playoff push in a suit on the bench, he's still having fun — and with two years left on his $27 million contract, the 39-year-old Nash said he hasn't considered shutting down his aching body.
Nash was limited to just 50 games with the Lakers, the lowest total in a non-lockout season in his 17-year NBA career. He averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 assists while struggling to define his role on a team dominated by Kobe Bryant, who's out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
"When I've been healthy, I've felt great, as good as I've ever felt," Nash said. "The biggest issue for me this year was just trying to find a niche, playing alongside Kobe and playing with new teammates, and I feel like that really started to come for me in the last month and a half or so. I was feeling a lot more confident and comfortable as to how I should approach and attack, so never did I ever feel anything but optimism going forward, but just frustration in the moment."
If Nash returns against the Spurs, coach Mike D'Antoni said he might start alongside Steve Blake, his backup. Blake has been a major contributor to the Lakers' stretch run, producing the highest-scoring two-game performance of his career while the Lakers wrapped up a playoff spot without Bryant in their final two games.
"He's a fighter," Nash said of Blake. "That's such a valuable thing for a team. He's been great. We've played together quite a bit this year, so I don't think it's anything new, but it could be a lot of minutes together, which is a good thing. We're a little undersized, but I think we'll both scrap and fight for things."
Blake said he would be eager to slide over to Bryant's usual spot at shooting guard, with Jodie Meeks providing offense off the bench. D'Antoni isn't worried about Nash's possible defensive limitations while the Lakers attempt to slow down San Antonio's Tony Parker, either.
"Nothing says (Nash) has to guard the point guard, and nothing says he has to play big minutes," D'Antoni said. "We'll see, but Steve wasn't the problem defensively. He's a good defender, and a good team defender. I don't expect us to back up at all."
Jordan Hill also returned to practice with the Lakers on Friday. Los Angeles' top backup big man hasn't played since Jan. 5 after undergoing surgery on his hip, and he's unlikely to play in Los Angeles' series with the Spurs — but if the Lakers manage to upset San Antonio, he could be available later in the postseason.