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  • Game info: 8:30 pm EDT Wed May 24, 2006
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PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Game 1.

Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks shed a huge burden. Now they have a chance to get rid of an even bigger one.

Having ousted the defending champions, the Mavericks are looking to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history as they begin what could be a run-and-gun series against Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.

Dallas enters this series as the favorite after eliminating San Antonio with a 119-111 overtime road victory Monday in Game 7.

Besides finishing three games behind the Spurs for the West’s best record this season, the Mavericks had lost their only other two playoff series against them—in the 2003 conference finals and 2001 semifinals.

“I told Dirk, ‘Did you see that? It just ran out of the door,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “The monkey that’s been on our back for so long, it’s gone.”

For Nowitzki, beating his good friend, Nash, to get Dallas into the championship round for the first time would feel just as good.

Nash has gotten the better of Nowitzki since leaving the Mavericks via free agency following the 2003-04 season. The superstar point guard has been league MVP in both seasons since departing—Nowitzki finished third this year—and helped cost Dallas a shot at the conference’s top seed by leading Phoenix to a 117-104 win over Dallas on April 13.

More importantly, Nowitzki’s Mavs missed out on a trip to last year’s conference finals by losing to Phoenix in six games in the second round. Nash averaged 40.3 points in the final three games, but that was when the Suns had a healthy Amare Stoudemire and the Mavs weren’t as good defensively as they have been during Avery Johnson’s first full season as coach.

“They’ve had a great year,” Nash said. “Avery Johnson’s been sensational as coach of the year. He’s really instilled some discipline in them that has them playing with some real confidence.

“We’re not the deepest team in the league. We aren’t the biggest team, but we have to be up there as far as the most resilient. On any day we can beat anybody. We just have to be on our day four times out of seven.”

That is exactly what happened for the Suns in the first two rounds, needing Game 7 to advance both times. The last team to win two Game 7s in one postseason was Dallas in 2003, a team that included Phoenix’s current starting backcourt of Nash and Raja Bell.

Having three days off between Games 6 and 7 benefited Nash and his ailing back in the semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers, as he finished with 29 points and 11 assists in a 127-107 win in Monday’s series-deciding contest. Nash, 2-for-18 from 3-point range in the previous five games, went 4-of-5 from beyond the arc and the Suns finished 15-of-27 in the finale.

“We have come through a lot this year with injuries and lack of size— whatever you want to talk about,” Nash said. “We have overcome a lot and we have turned out to be a really good team.”

While Phoenix led the league in scoring for the second straight year— although its average slipped slightly with Stoudemire missing most of the season—Dallas’ scoring also dipped as it focused more on defense under Johnson. That could prove to be a key in this series.

The teams split four meetings during the regular season. In its two wins, Phoenix averaged 116 points and shot 54.2 percent from the field in both, shooting a combined 26-of-46 from 3-point range. In two losses, the Suns were held to an average of 93 points in regulation—Dallas won 111-108 in double overtime at Phoenix on opening night—and shot 41.8 percent while going 13-for-42 from beyond the arc.

“The first two games will be very important, trying to figure each other out and seeing which way they want to go and attack,” said forward Tim Thomas, the midseason acquisition who has been vital to Phoenix’s playoff run with 15.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

“We know they are going to come out and play hard. They are on a real high right now after beating San Antonio. We’re just going to go out there and see what we’ve got.”

Neither team scored fewer than 102 points in any game during their semifinal series last season, a trend Dallas might want to try to steer clear of this time. The Suns have averaged 98.8 points in six losses this postseason, compared to 118.0 in seven victories.

Defensively for Phoenix, Shawn Marion faces the tough matchup of battling Nowitzki, who averaged 29.5 points and 12.0 rebounds against the Suns this season. The 7-footer was outstanding over the final five games of the San Antonio series with averages of 29.8 points and 12.2 boards, capped by a 37-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 7.

“I just have to play him the way I always do,” said the 6-7 Marion. “He’s 7-feet tall, so there’s only so much I can do on him. At the same time, I’m going to make it as hard as I can for him. He’s going to watch some videotape to get ready, so get ready.”

Marion, meanwhile, struggled for much of the postseason before coming on strong late in the second round with four 30-point efforts in the final five games.

He could get help up front in this series. Veteran center Kurt Thomas, sidelined since Feb. 22 due to a stress fracture in his right foot, scrimmaged with the Suns on Sunday and could return as early as Game 1.

What should be of greater importance than how much Thomas can contribute is how Nash and Bell fare against Dallas’ backcourt of Jason Terry and Devin Harris.

While Bell may have been Phoenix’s best player throughout the second round, averaging 19.1 points and helping limit Sam Cassell’s production, Terry was equally significant for Dallas. He averaged 22.5 points in the Mavs’ four wins over San Antonio, including 27 in Game 7, and was limited to a total of 29 in the team’s three losses. Terry was suspended for the Game 6 defeat for punching Michael Finley.

“As a franchise and as a team, we have definitely taken a step in the right direction,” Terry said, “but we are not done yet.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Mavericks - 4th seed; beat Memphis Grizzlies 4-0, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-3, conference semifinals. Suns - 2nd seed; beat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3, first round; beat Los Angeles Clippers 4-3, conference semifinals.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Mavericks - F Josh Howard, F Nowitzki, C DeSagana Diop, G Harris, G Terry. Suns - F Marion, F Tim Thomas, C Boris Diaw, G Nash, G Bell.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Mavericks - Nowitzki, 28.6 ppg and 11.3 rpg; Terry, 4.1 apg. Suns - Marion, 21.9 ppg and 11.0 rpg; Nash, 10.2 apg.

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