- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

SAN ANTONIO — The Phoenix Suns have plenty of reasons to be excited about having Joe Johnson back for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals tonight.

The biggest involve easing the huge burden the team has placed on Steve Nash — at both ends of the court.

On defense, Nash will no longer have to chase San Antonio point guard Tony Parker. He’ll be Johnson’s problem. Instead, Nash will get to cover the Spurs’ last scoring option, Bruce Bowen.

When the Suns have the ball, Nash will no longer be the second scoring option after center Amare Stoudemire. That’ll be Johnson’s job, too, as will running the offense so Nash can have some rare time off to catch his breath.

“I’ve had a lot of minutes in a lot of games and a ton of responsibility lately,” Nash said yesterday. “I think it will keep me a little bit fresher, but I don’t know if that will have an impact on the game.”

It can’t hurt.

As much as Nash has cleared any doubts about his MVP status with the way he has played in Johnson’s absence, Phoenix still trails this series 0-2 with the next two games on the road. No team has ever come back to win the conference finals or NBA Finals when facing those circumstances.

If the Suns lose Game 3, the odds really would be against them. No NBA team has ever rallied from a three-game deficit to win a series, in any round.

So, uh, welcome back, Joe.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Johnson said. “I’m just going to go out and play. Whatever the results may be, that’s that.”

Johnson has been out since a face-first fall from the rim May 11 against Dallas. The Suns went on to lose that game and are 3-3 without their third-leading scorer.

His return was expected after he practiced Thursday. He received final approval from doctors yesterday morning; he also had some stitches removed from inside his mouth.

Coach Mike D’Antoni said Johnson will start and will play as long as he’s effective. The only limitation is a protective mask Johnson must wear.

“Hopefully it’ll affect him more than he thinks it will,” said San Antonio’s Robert Horry, who knows from experience how uncomfortable it can be.

The layoff itself has been the toughest part for Johnson, who had played every game since joining the Suns three years ago. He’s so eager to get back that he’s not worried about further damage, which in turn could damage the payday he’s expecting when he becomes a free agent this summer.

“I’m not worried about my face,” he said. “I’m just going to come out and play like I always have. Nothing’s going to change because I’ve got a mask on.”

The change for Nash is that he can focus less on scoring and more on passing.

Although Jim Jackson did a nice job filling in as a starter, it was Nash who picked up the slack, averaging 34.3 points the last six games. To do it, Nash took at least 21 shots in every game, starting with the one when Johnson was hurt, after never having taken more than 20 all season.

Nash also played at least 42 minutes every game. While the Suns insist adrenaline and longer TV timeouts compensate for rest, something has caused Phoenix to wilt in the fourth quarter of Games1 and 2. The Spurs scored 43 and 31 points in those periods, turning deficits into victories both times.

Nash’s minutes this series have been more grueling because of his defensive duties against Parker.

“It’s not fun,” D’Antoni said. “People talk about us having a pick-and-roll offense. They run a lot of them and Steve gets knocked off pretty much.”

Both teams should be refreshed from having three days off. And while San Antonio certainly has an advantage being at home — the Spurs were a league-best 38-3 in the regular season and are 5-1 in the playoffs — it’s not as pronounced as you might expect. The Suns won a league-best 31 road games and are 4-1 on the road in the playoffs.

The Spurs also have blown two 2-0 series leads in the past year. San Antonio won the first two games against Seattle in the second round this month but let the SuperSonics come back to tie it. Last year, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by the Lakers after going up 2-0. However, the third and fourth games of both those series were on the road.

San Antonio star Tim Duncan says being home for Games 3 and 4 “makes a huge difference, but the chance for a letdown is still there.”

“If we go and drop this third game then it will be a whole different series,” he said. “We really want to jump on them in the third game and try to put the series away.”

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