PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Mavericks lead 2-1.
If the Mavs can put forth another similar performance in Game 4 at US Airways Center in Phoenix, they can return to Dallas needing only one victory to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Avery Johnson’s team took back home-court advantage with Sunday’s 95-88 victory at Phoenix. Dirk Nowitzki had 28 points and 17 rebounds for the Mavs, but it was a stellar defensive effort in the second half that made all the difference for Dallas.
The wake-up call for the Mavs came late in the first half, when point guard Jason Terry and Tim Thomas got into a shoving match after Dallas forward Josh Howard was whistled for a flagrant foul on Thomas.
Both Terry—who was suspended for a game in the previous round against San Antonio for throwing a punch—and Thomas received technicals, but the Mavs parlayed the emotion of the incident into a 15-2 spurt that bridged the halves and gave them a 57-54 lead.
“It’s just a situation where we’re standing together and he walks right through us,” Terry said on Monday. “Hey, stuff happens in a game. It’s the Western Conference finals and guys are going to do whatever it takes.”
In addition to steadily improving their transition defense in this series, the Mavs have also received valuable minutes from center DeSagana Diop, who has been clogging the lane to prevent Suns point guard Steve Nash from effectively driving and kicking to open perimeter shooters.
“He’s long. Is one of our best defenders down low, great shot blocker for us,” Nowitzki said. “He doesn’t really care about offensive that much at all. If he gets touches or not. That’s not his game. He brings energy for us. He brings length and shot blocking and he’s been phenomenal.”
Another key player for the Mavs has been Howard, who contributed 22 points and 12 rebounds Sunday. Howard missed all but six minutes of Phoenix’s Game 1 victory due to a bruised ankle.
“I think we really missed him in Game 1,” Nowitzki said. “We missed his athleticism on both ends of the floor. And Game 2 he was aggressive on the basket. We need his athleticism on the perimeter and we really missed him in Game 1. But he came out firing again tonight and he’s a big key why we’re up 2-1.”
In addition to avoid falling into a 3-1 series deficit, the Suns now face the challenge of emotionally regrouping. Phoenix abandoned its up-tempo style for most of the second half of Game 3, struggling to score 36 points and finishing with only four fast-break points after scoring 53 in the first two games.
“We got into a half-court mentality,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And I don’t know if it’s because, you know, the level of the game was up and we just kind of took the foot off the accelerator or if, you know, we were mentally tired, I don’t know the reason.
“But I know the answer. We can’t do it. Somehow we gotta find the resilience and the effort to do it.”
“I did see it a little bit, and I don’t know what to attribute that to,” said Bell, who is not expected to play in this game. “I think we have to find that (energy) from whoever’s suited up.”
The Suns lost two in a row to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round before rebounding to win after trailing 3-1 in the series. But the 60-win Mavs are more talented than the Lakers, and Thomas knows Phoenix cannot afford to go back to Dallas facing elimination
“We know Game 4 will be huge for us,” Thomas said. “We have to get that game. They now have the homecourt back. We don’t want to go back to Dallas down 3-1.”
Game 5 is Thursday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Mavericks - 4th seed; beat Memphis Grizzlies 4-0, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-3, semifinals. Suns - 2nd seed; beat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3, first round; beat Los Angeles Clippers 4-3, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Mavericks - Nowitzki, 28.4 ppg and 12.4 rpg; Terry, 3.9 apg. Suns - Marion, 21.1 ppg and 12.0 rpg; Nash, 10.4 apg.