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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dallas Wears Down Phoenix, Advances to the NBA Finals

The Phoenix Suns hit the Dallas Mavericks with their best shot and had a 15 point lead midway through the third quarter of game six of the Western Conference Finals--but the Mavericks stayed disciplined, stuck with their game plan and wore down the Suns in a 102-93 win. It was like watching Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the famous "Rope-a-Dope" fight. Foreman pounded on Ali for the first several rounds until Ali looked at him and said, "Is that all you've got?" Years later, Foreman reflecting back on how stunned he was that anyone could withstand the onslaught, recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it." Ali then knocked him out. Dallas watched Phoenix run up and down the court for two and a half quarters and then collectively looked at the Suns and asked if that was all that they had. The scoreboard told the story from that point, as Dallas outscored Phoenix by 24 the rest of the way.

Dallas will meet Miami in a matchup of teams that have never played in the NBA Finals before. Dirk Nowitzki only scored eight points on 2-9 shooting from the field in the first half but he made five straight shots and scored 12 points in the third quarter as Dallas cut Phoenix' lead to 66-62 going into the fourth quarter. Nowitzki had two big three point plays in the period, drawing Leandro Barbosa's fourth foul and then doing the same to Tim Thomas. Nowitzki finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Josh Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Jerry Stackhouse, who played 40 minutes because Jason Terry and Devin Harris got into early foul trouble, contributed 19 points. Boris Diaw scored 30 points and added 11 rebounds for Phoenix and Steve Nash had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds.

The Mavericks made their first shot of the game and then missed their next eight, shooting only 4-18 from the field in the first quarter. Phoenix bolted out to a 26-10 lead and the score was 29-14 at the end of the period, Dallas' lowest scoring quarter of the 2006 playoffs. Phoenix pushed the lead to 44-26 after Shawn Marion hit a three pointer from the baseline. Nowitzki's three point play with less than three minutes remaining trimmed the margin to 13 and Phoenix led 51-39 at the half. Diaw already had 20 points on 8-11 shooting. During TNT's halftime show, Magic Johnson blasted the Mavericks' performance: "This is not a championship effort. They came out soft." Johnson, who won five championships as a player, should know that it is not how you start that matters but how you finish. Or, as Bjorn Borg might say ("You Gotta Love It": Clippers Force a Seventh Game Versus the Suns), it's the fifth set that matters, not the fourth one. In this game, the second half told the story.

Dallas trailed 53-43 when Diaw went to the bench with his fourth foul, but Barbosa made a three pointer and a fast break layup to push the lead back to 60-45. Then Nowitzki took over, driving to the basket, making two three point plays and setting off a 17-6 Dallas run to end the third quarter. Howard tied the game early in the fourth quarter on his offensive rebound put back and then a DeSagana Diop put back gave the Mavericks a 68-66 lead, the first time they were ahead since Diop made the first basket of the game. Dallas outscored Phoenix 63-42 in the second half, putting the clamps on Phoenix' running game and then pounding the ball inside.

Phoenix battled Dallas very hard throughout this series but Dallas' depth and ability to get defensive stops proved to be too much for the Suns to overcome. The series pretty much went the way that I expected it to go; this is what I wrote in my series preview:

Dallas will win because because…Dirk Nowitzki will have a big series and Dallas has enough athletes to beat the Suns at their own game but has more of a defensive mindset and will be able to get key stops at crucial points during games.

Dallas Coach Avery Johnson has pointed out that his team is capable of playing at a slow or a fast tempo. His Mavericks are very much made in the mold of Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, who beat the offensive-minded Suns in last year's playoffs and then defeated the defensive-minded Pistons in the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM


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