PHILADELPHIA — The Lakers didn’t need help from a bizarre rule Friday.
They just needed Steve Nash to play like he was 29 on his 40th birthday.
Nash delivered a turn-back-the-clock night in the Lakers’ 112-98 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. He had 19 points, five assists and four rebounds in his second game since Nov. 10, shoving past the nerve damage in his back and reaching toward whatever’s left of his basketball career.
“After 18 years, it’s very sweet. I thought ‘it’ was gone,” he said in a reflective moment afterward. “I didn’t know that I could get on top of my health issues.”
There’s still a long ways to go. In no way is Nash’s back a forgotten issue, and he knows it.
He played only six games all season until returning Tuesday against Minnesota. Then he sat out Wednesday’s wild “Sacre’s Sixth” game against Cleveland because he’s not doing back-to-back games.
But he looked agile and youthful against the woeful 76ers, who own the NBA’s second-worst home record (8-18).
There were shades of 2005 Nash when he combined a behind-the-back dribble with a change of direction that fooled Evan Turner and led to Nash’s easy second-quarter layup.
Then Nash faked a long jump shot in the third quarter and sent a behind-the-back pass to Wesley Johnson all alone for a successful three-pointer.
Nash even smiled late in the game after a so-called hockey assist, a pass up top to Chris Kaman, who quickly found Johnson for an easy jumper from three feet.
“He never ceases to amaze me,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “At age 40, I’m surprised he even wants to play. It’s like, are you serious? You want to get out of bed and try this? But it doesn’t surprise me, the type of person he is. He’s just got a great foundation of being a great guy and teammate and he loves to play.”
It was a quiet 40th compared to the rollicking surprise party Nash’s teammates threw for him a year ago at a swank New York nightclub.
This year, Nash didn’t even want rookie Ryan Kelly to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. The veterans insisted on it. Nash resisted.
“I didn’t want to be embarrassed for the guy,” Nash said later. “And I didn’t want to draw any attention, I guess.”
As if the reminders of last season couldn’t ever leave, a 76ers employee asked Nash after the game to sign the infamous Sports Illustrated cover of Dwight Howard and Nash in Lakers uniforms, the headline excitedly proclaiming, “Now This Is Going To Be Fun.”
It wasn’t, as everyone knows.
This season isn’t enthralling for the Lakers, either. They’re now 18-32 with plenty of tough nights ahead of them. Anyone notice that obscene stretch next month of consecutive games against Oklahoma City and then two in a row against San Antonio?
But the Lakers finally kicked the bad habit of allowing 100 or more points after 16 leaky games. Not even a 62-foot three-pointer by Tony Wroten sapped them as the third quarter ended.
And they got good nights out of Kaman (17 points, eight rebounds) and Kelly (15 points, eight rebounds).
The story was Nash, though. He even had the quote of the day several hours before the game.
“It’s great to be known for being old,” he said dryly after the team’s shoot-around.
He didn’t look old Friday, a moment of warmth in an otherwise frigid time for the Lakers.