By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Steve Nash gave the Los Angeles Lakers a welcome boost on Friday when he said he was "very optimistic" he would play in Saturday's Game One of their first-round playoff series against the Spurs in San Antonio.
The 39-year-old point guard missed the last eight games of the regular season because of back and hip problems but pronounced himself happy after going through a series of five-on-five sessions in team practice on Friday.
"Mentally, I'm chomping at the bit and physically, I'm getting there," Nash told reporters. "I'm very optimistic that I'll play on Sunday. I just don't want to over-promise and get ahead of myself."
Nash, who has not played for the Lakers in almost three weeks, had an epidural injection three days ago. Though not yet pain-free, he said he felt less inhibited in his movement.
"I was able to play halfcourt today, and there were a couple of situations where it was pretty close to a sprint so it's coming," he said.
"In some ways, I want to give myself as much time as possible but at the same time you can't wait forever. I'm just hoping to be able to play, get out there and contribute.
"That's the bottom line. I'm just really hopeful and working hard - pretty much twice a day the last few weeks - to get back. Hopefully the time has come."
Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni said that Nash, twice an NBA most valuable player, would be a game-time decision for the team's best-of-seven playoff series opener against the Spurs.
"I thought he looked good," D'Antoni said of Nash's form during Friday's practice session. "He only played half court. We'll check it out tomorrow and see how it reacted."
D'Antoni said Nash could start alongside Steve Blake, his backup as point guard, but that if he did play, he would not necessarily defend against San Antonio's agile point guard Tony Parker.
"Nothing says he (Nash) has to guard the point guard, and nothing says he has to play big minutes," D'Antoni added. "We'll see. Steve is a good defender, and a good team defender. I don't expect us to back up at all."
The return of former All-Star Nash would give the Lakers a much needed lift as they prepare to take on the Spurs without the inspirational Kobe Bryant, who has been sidelined for up to nine months after having surgery on an injured Achilles tendon.
Without Bryant for just over a week, the Lakers scraped into the playoffs as the seventh-seeded team in the Western Conference after winning their last five regular-season games.
Up against the Spurs, they face experienced opponents who have clinched four NBA titles and ended their regular season second best in the West with a 58-24 record.
Spanish forward Pau Gasol, who has recorded two triple-doubles in his last three games for the Lakers, said of the challenge facing his team: "Understand that it's going to be very difficult.
"San Antonio is a great team. They're very experienced. They execute really well, they're disciplined, they're extremely well-coached, and we're going to play on their home court - but we still believe in ourselves."
D'Antoni has been impressed by his team's resurgence during the latter part of an injury-plagued regular season as they improved from a 17-25 low point to finish on a 28-12 run.
"Confidence-wise, they're more secure in what they're doing and in what their team mates are doing," he said.
"We've played an elimination game almost every night. We went through a lot of stuff this year. It's been hard all year."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Ian Ransom)