Daily Confidential

The return of reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash to the starting lineup has fueled the Phoenix Suns' rise in the Pacific Division.

One night after leading his team to a thrilling double-overtime victory for their eighth straight win overall, Nash looks to help the Suns (11-6) continue their recent success at TD Banknorth Garden when they meet the Boston Celtics (5-12) on Friday.

Phoenix has won four straight in Boston since a 109-102 overtime loss on Dec. 7, 2001. The Suns are averaging 110.8 points per game and shooting 40.2 percent (35-for-87) from beyond the arc during that run.

But Nash has struggled in his career against the Celtics. In 17 games, he's averaging only 9.9 points - his lowest against any team - and 7.4 assists.

Coach Mike D'Antoni's team made an NBA season-high 17 3-pointers in a 161-157 double-overtime win at New Jersey on Thursday night in the league's highest-scoring game this season.

Nash sank a 3-pointer to tie the score at 133 and force overtime. He then scored nine of his career-high 42 points in the second overtime during a game that had 34 lead changes and 21 ties.

``I think we can go home and turn on Classic NBA,'' D'Antoni said. ``It will be on there already. That's the best game I have ever seen.''

Nash missed Phoenix's 120-117 overtime loss to Utah on Nov. 18 with back spasms. Since rejoining the starting lineup in a 113-110 win over Golden State on Nov. 20, the Suns have yet to lose and trail the Los Angeles Lakers by one-half game in the Pacific.

``We've improved our concentration, and we've continued to develop a familiarity with the old guys and the new guys,'' said Nash, who's averaging 23.6 points and 12.1 assists since his return.

Phoenix will try to win nine straight for the first time since an 11-game run from Feb. 8-March 6.

Boston, which is trying avoid a season-high fifth loss in a row, is coming off a 98-96 defeat against Memphis on Wednesday. Sebastian Telfair missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer after Grizzlies' rookie Rudy Gay sank a jumper from the top of the key with less than 3 seconds to play.

Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 25 points, but also had nine of the team's 20 turnovers. Pierce has averaged 28.1 points in 14 games against the Suns, his highest average against any team.

Gerald Green came off bench to score 21 - one off his career high - in 25 minutes.

``A lot of people are saying that I played a pretty decent game, but I don't feel like I did,'' Green said. ``I feel like it wasn't good enough because we lost. I have to have that mind frame. At the end of the day, we gotta win the game.''

Wally Szczerbiak has missed two straight games with a sprained left ankle and Celtics coach Doc Rivers said chances that the swingman would play in this game were slim. At 19.6 ppg, Szczerbiak is second on the team in scoring behind Pierce's 25.6 ppg.

Boston also played Wednesday without center Kendrick Perkins, who sat out with plantar fasciitis. He could miss up to four weeks, Rivers said.

``We're undermanned, so what?'' Rivers said. ``No one's going to feel sorry for you. If you hang your heads, they're going to attack you.''

Al Jefferson replaced Perkins in the starting lineup and finished with nine points and a team-high 12 rebounds. Tony Allen started in place of Szczerbiak and didn't score in 19 minutes.

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