BILL PLASCHKE

This is not the Steve Nash the Lakers hoped for

The Lakers got an older, slower, less effective Nash than the superstar fans remember with the Suns. For a team with championship aspirations, that's a big disappointment.

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He drives the lane, spins and slips backward like a fading star. He returns to the lane and scores on a layup under two defenders like a kid.

He curls around the baseline, stops in front of the basket, and the ball is swatted from his hands as if he's a careless rookie. He then fakes a defender and hit an open bank shot like a star.

He is awful. He is great. He is sometimes slow. He is occasionally sneaky. He is, on the whole, precisely the opposite of the sort of point guard that everyone thought he would be.

Steve Nash is ordinary. He is Ramon Sessions. He is the Derek Fisher. He is decidedly not Steve Nash.

During the Lakers' 91-85 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night at Staples Center, Nash sank a couple of runners late to save his team from embarrassment and was good enough for 10 points and eight assists. But in a season that has cried out for the sort of magic he once used to taunt Lakers fans, he once again only taunted them with his lack of it.

Nash's best trick this season is that nobody has blamed him for it.

On an underachieving team filled with big-name targets of national criticism, he has given scrutiny the slip. In a crumbling season where seemingly everyone has been ripped, it's never been his fault.

From the moment Nash showed up on opening night in a pink sweater and bow tie while carrying a man purse, Los Angeles has seemingly been blinded by his style and his smarts, his pregame effort, his postgame perspective.

It's a different story when one actually examines his basketball.

His points are similar to his career average, he's actually shooting a better percentage than his career average, and his turnovers are officially down. But Nash's greatness was never measured by stats. It was all about spark and swagger. Just days after his 39th birthday, it is now safe to write that he has shown little of either.

According to hoopsstats.com, he is the NBA's 15th most effective point guard, while the Lakers have the 29th most efficient point guard production in the 30-team league.

He is not running circles around the other guys. He is not orchestrating fastbreaks and furious attacks. He is not making the special sort of plays that made him so special in Phoenix.

And he admits it.

"I'm not as efficient as I've played in the past," he said Tuesday night. "This is not quite what I'm capable of."

He is, mainly, not producing on the pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard, something which Coach Mike D'Antoni amazingly said he can't figure out.

"It's a mystery. I don't know why," D'Antoni said early Tuesday evening. "I would think it would be the staple of what we do. It isn't."

Some of it is Howard's inability to set strong picks and hold on to the ball once he gets it. But some of it is also Nash's inability to create space. Whatever it is, they have clearly struggled to play together; witness their recent angry exchange in Miami when a Nash pass bounced off Howard's leg.

Nash is also averaging three fewer assists than last season, with his seven-per-game his lowest in 10 years. Yes, Kobe Bryant has basically stripped him of the ball and turned him into some sort of hybrid shooting guard. But Bryant only acted out of desperation when Nash wasn't running the show.

"I'm just trying to embrace the role I've been given," Nash said. "I'm not going to wonder about how I look here. This is about the team. We have enough voices around here. We don't need mine adding to the mix."

The Lakers are obviously better with Nash. But how much better? Has he really answered their seemingly eternal need for a point guard? Even the most purple-throated Lakers fan must admit that it's worth asking the question: Is Steve Nash better than the guy he replaced?

Remember how the Lakers let Ramon Sessions walk last summer because they didn't want to give him a multiyear deal? Has anybody checked out how well Sessions in playing in a backup role in Charlotte, where the Bobcats have the league's fifth-most efficient point guards? Sessions does not have Nash's career but he has the perfect skills for a D'Antoni offense.

When Sessions bolted, the Lakers became desperate, and responded with what everyone thought was the most energizing move of the summer in acquiring Nash. Funny, but with two more years remaining on his contract at $19 million, suddenly Nash doesn't seem like such a steal.

It hasn't helped that Nash missed 24 games early with a broken bone in his leg, but D'Antoni said he looks sound and strong.

"I'm sure he's pressing," D'Antoni said. "But I think he's playing well."

Translated, he's playing ordinary. And for a team relying on his skill for its championship hopes, that's no good at all.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke
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