Steve Nash hopes to play despite a nagging sore right shoulder and return to the lineup Tuesday when the Phoenix Suns try to avoid a season high-tying four-game losing streak with a visit to the struggling Los Angeles Clippers.

Nash, the two-time reigning NBA MVP, has missed four consecutive games since suffering the injury in Phoenix's win at Denver on Feb. 5. The point guard - who did not participate in the All-Star game - practiced on Monday and claimed the shoulder isn't as strong of flexible as he would like, but he feels he can play.

"I didn't feel any setbacks, and hopefully if it feels good tomorrow morning and again tomorrow night, I'll give it a shot," Nash said.

"I'm definitely not where I want to be. But the shoulder's improved a lot and it's gotten stronger. The irritation's gone away. So I feel like I'm not at a point where I'm going to face any more setbacks. Even though I'm not where I want to be, I think that I'll continue to strengthen from here on out and progress rather than have a stop-and-start situation."

The injury showed just how important Nash - who averages 19.3 points and a league-high 11.8 assists - is to the Suns (39-13). Without him, they used Leandro Barbosa at the point, and he filled in admirably with 21.5 points and 5.3 assists per game in the three contests. Despite Barbosa's efforts, the Suns went 0-3, capped with a 114-90 loss at Seattle on Wednesday before heading into the All-Star break.

Phoenix hasn't dropped four consecutive games since Nov. 3-9, which included a 114-108 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center.

Nash claimed the team's struggles did not hasten his desire to return.

"I think I would want to be back if we were rolling," he said. "I think it's important not to be influenced by how the team's doing and just make sure the shoulder is improving, because I'd hate to have this be a recurring theme the rest of the way."

Phoenix may also have Kurt Thomas back from injury Tuesday. The backup center has been sidelined for 15 games since hurting his elbow in a win at Memphis on Jan. 15.

The Suns, though, are expected to be without forward Boris Diaw for a third consecutive game due to back spasms.

The injuries piled up for Phoenix and contributed to the slide, but Nash's return could provide a lift for the team with the second-best record in the NBA as it tries to make up a 4 1/2-game deficit on Dallas in the race for the best record in the Western Conference.

"We're going to have to sharpen our performance," Nash said. "I think the break will be good for us to regroup. Hopefully, we can finish this season on a high and make the improvements we need for the playoffs, and tomorrow night's the ideal time to start."

Nash has 48 points and 24 assists in two games against the Clippers this season, and the home team has won each game.

Los Angeles (25-28) hopes it can duplicate its victory over Phoenix at home and avoid a fourth consecutive loss for the first time since a season-high six-game slide from Dec. 11-22.

The Clippers' recent skid reached three games after they squandered a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in a 96-93 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, their sixth loss overall in the last seven games.

"We just let them back into the game," Clippers center Chris Kaman said. "It happens all the time, and after a while, you just ask yourself what you are going to do. We can't finish a game in our own building against a team that we are supposed to beat."


Copyright 2006 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited