PHOENIX, Feb. 19 (AP) -- After testing his sore right shoulder in practice on Monday, Phoenix point guard Steve Nash said he hopes to return to the lineup when the Suns visit the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night.

"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 Monday.

Nash said the shoulder isn't as strong or flexible as he'd like. But he doesn't believe he's risking a longer-term injury by playing Tuesday night.

"I'm definitely not where I want to be,'' he said. "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.''

Backup center Kurt Thomas, who has been sidelined since Jan. 15 with an elbow injury, is also expected to return Tuesday night.

But the Pacific Division-leading Suns still won't be completely healthy as they head into the final 30 games of the regular season. Forward Boris Diaw is likely to miss a third straight game with back spasms.

Nash has missed four games since shoulder inflammation kept him out of the second half of a 113-108 victory at Denver on Feb. 5. Without Nash directing the league's most potent offense, the Suns have dropped three straight games and slipped 4+ games behind Dallas in the race for the Western Conference's top playoff seed.

Over the past three seasons, the Suns are 151-49 when Nash plays and 4-12 when he doesn't, including 2-4 this season.

No wonder coach Mike D'Antoni and Nash's teammates are happy to see him at practice Monday.

"Steve looked great,'' D'Antoni said. "His legs looked great.''

Added center Amare Stoudemire: "Steve at 70 percent is still the best point guard in the league.''

Averaging career-bests of 19.3 points and 11.8 assists per game, Nash's biggest contribution comes on offense. But the Suns' biggest problem in his absence has been defense; they've given up 120, 116 and 114 points in the past three losses.

Nash said the club's struggles won't make him come back if he's not ready.

"I think I would want to be back if we were rolling,'' Nash 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.''

The Suns clearly need their two-time NBA MVP if they hope to catch the Mavericks, who have won nine straight games to open up some room in the chase for the West's top seed. Last year, the Mavericks had home-court advantage and defeated the Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference finals.

After facing the Clippers, the Suns come home to play the woeful Boston Celtics Wednesday night. Then Phoenix has a four-games-in-six-nights swing through Minnesota, Atlanta, Indiana and Philadelphia.

"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.''

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