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Friday, December 29, 2006

Dirk's Dagger in Dallas Does in Phoenix

Dirk Nowitzki coolly sank a long jumper over Shawn Marion with a little over one second left, lifting the Dallas Mavericks to a 101-99 win over the Phoenix Suns. Nowitzki finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds but Dallas would not have won without Jason Terry's season-high 35 points and eight assists. Josh Howard (16 points, 12 rebounds) also had a strong game for Dallas. Amare Stoudemire (25 points, 13 rebounds) and Steve Nash (24 points, 13 assists) provided most of the firepower for Phoenix; Stoudemire's markedly increased productivity over the last 20 games is a great sign for the Suns and has a lot to do with the great run that they have been on during that time. Both teams have completely turned things around after slow starts--including this game, the Suns have gone 18-4 after opening the season 1-4, while the Mavericks have bounced back from 0-4 to go 22-3.

The game began with a frenetic pace and Phoenix led 9-8 with a little more than three minutes elapsed in the first quarter (that pace projects to a final score in the 120s). Phoenix was still ahead 16-13 at the 5:26 mark but Dallas closed the quarter with a 17-4 run, with Terry doing most of the damage. He scored 13 points in the quarter and Dallas repeatedly broke down Phoenix' defense, enabling the Mavericks to draw fouls and shoot 14 free throws, making 12.

Dallas went ahead by as much as 13, 38-25, while Nash rested on the bench from the end of the first quarter until the 9:17 mark in the second quarter; the Suns were outscored by 12 points during the roughly five minutes that he sat out. Not surprisingly, the Suns immediately got back in the game when he returned to action, shaving the margin to 38-33 in about a minute and eventually tying the score at 47 when Nash passed to Raja Bell for a jump shot. TNT's microphones captured the words of frustrated Dallas Coach Avery Johnson during a second quarter timeout as he pleaded with center Desagana Diop to aggressively take the ball to the basket, even if that would result in the poor free throw shooter having to go to the foul line: "Show me something," Johnson exhorted. "Dunk on somebody and scream."

Besides Nash's play, a big factor in the Suns' second quarter comeback is that they stopped committing fouls. The Suns want to run and would almost rather give up field goals than send their opponent to the free throw line. They figure that they will outshoot the other team in the end if the game turns into a track meet. This is a fun style to watch but it has a way of keeping both teams in the game, as TNT's Doug Collins pointed out. No Phoenix lead is safe but Phoenix is also capable of getting hot and coming back from big deficits.

Dallas led 52-49 at halftime. Terry already had 18 points and four assists, while Nash had 15 points and seven assists.

Terry scored seven points in less than four minutes as Dallas jumped out to a 65-57 lead in the third quarter. A couple minutes later, his three pointer put Dallas up 70-57 but Nash immediately answered with a three pointer. Terry then hit a three pointer and Nash retaliated with a great pass to Stoudemire for an impressive dunk. Nash and Stoudemire found a real groove with the high pick and roll play and ran it repeatedly in the third quarter, cutting Dallas' lead to 78-76 by the end of the period.

Leandro Barbosa's reverse layup tied the score at 78 and then Shawn Marion gave the Suns their first lead since the opening period with a fast break dunk. Two Jumaine Jones three pointers and one Marion three pointer put the Suns up 89-80 with 8:45 to go. One might think that Dallas would be reeling after watching a 13 point lead become a nine point deficit but this is just the nature of playing against the Suns; if your team has enough firepower, you can always bounce back and retake the lead just as quickly as the Suns took it from you. Four minutes later Dallas was only down 92-91 and soon after that the Mavericks went ahead after a Nowitzki jumper. A tough Nash runner and a Stoudemire free throw put Phoenix up 94-92 but Dallas did not trail again after Terry's three pointer on a fast break made the score 95-94; the Suns did manage to tie the game on two different occasions after that but Nowitzki or Howard always answered.

This was a very entertaining game to watch. The Mavericks have regained the form that they displayed during last year's run to the NBA Finals. The Suns are clearly one of the best teams in the league but it is very difficult to picture them winning the NBA title. Yes, they can beat anyone on a given night and they battled the Mavericks to the final buzzer but they rely too much on their offense. Dallas and San Antonio are able to get key defensive stops and that is what wins playoff series. It is too exhausting--and too risky--to rely purely on outscoring teams for an entire seven game series. Stoudemire looks like he is close to regaining his form of a couple seasons ago but it is important to remember that even in the playoff series when he scored over 35 ppg against Tim Duncan that Duncan also scored a ton of points--and his Spurs won the series. Dallas and San Antonio can win games that are 101-99 and games that are 81-79; Phoenix can only be successful in fast paced games.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:08 AM

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