PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Mavericks lead 3-2.
For Dirk Nowitzki, delivering a good follow-up act to the highest-scoring playoff game in team history can’t be easy.
Leading the Dallas Mavericks to the most meaningful win in their 26-year history would be one way to do it.
Two nights after Nowitzki bounced back in stellar fashion, the Phoenix Suns again must show why they have been this postseason’s most resilient team as they return home looking to spoil the first of Dallas’ two chances to reach its first NBA Finals.
Just when it appeared Phoenix could take control of the series, taking a seven-point lead in Dallas late in the third quarter of Game 5, the Mavericks fought back behind Nowitzki as he provided one of the top individual performances of the playoffs.
He scored 29 points in the game’s final 15 1/2 minutes—Phoenix had just 24 in that span—and set a club postseason record with 50 points as Dallas won 117-101.
“In the third quarter, when we were down seven, I just saw the whole season swimming away,” Nowitzki said. “So at that point I just said, you know, ‘Let’s go.”’
Shooting 14-for-26 from the field and 17-for-18 at the foul line while grabbing 12 rebounds, Nowitzki atoned for a lousy Game 4, in which he was held to 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting in a 106-86 loss. He had scored at least 20 points in 42 consecutive games.
The only other time the Mavericks were one win away from the NBA Finals came in 1988, when they lost Game 7 of the conference finals on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We’re one game away from doing something this team and franchise has never done before,” said Jerry Stackhouse, who scored 16 points in Game 5. “Hopefully we’ll bring all that energy we need.”
Even if Dallas can’t win in Phoenix, it would return home to play Game 7 on Monday. The Mavs have never blown a 3-2 series lead.
The Suns are trying to force a third consecutive Game 7. They’re the only team in this postseason to win two such contests, having overcome a 3-1 deficit in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers before being pushed to the limit by the Los Angeles Clippers.
“It’s tough, but we’ve been there before,” Phoenix center Boris Diaw said. “It’s not something we enjoy, but we seem to play our best when our back is against the wall.”
The Suns are on the brink of elimination again because their prolific offense became stagnant when it mattered most Thursday, just as it did in a Game 3 loss. Phoenix was held to 20 points in the fourth quarter of each defeat.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Tim Thomas gave Phoenix a 77-70 lead with 3:27 left in the third quarter Thursday. Those baskets gave Thomas 26 points, but he would not score again after Dallas called a timeout and Phoenix went cold down the stretch.
“We didn’t actually play very well, but we fought well for a long time,” said Steve Nash, who had 20 points and 11 assists but was 5-for-17 from the field. “They got separation from us, and we didn’t play well after that. So we just want to play a better game and put together 48 minutes.”
Getting back on track offensively, as opposed to slowing down Nowitzki, may be Phoenix’s top concern. In both of the other two games in these playoffs when they allowed a 40-point scorer—Kobe Bryant’s 50 and Elton Brand’s 40—the Suns won.
Phoenix has averaged 95.7 points in its three losses in this series, compared to 113.5 in two wins.
Limiting Josh Howard’s production could also be critical for Phoenix. The versatile forward had 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting in Game 5 as Dallas improved to 24-0 this season when he scores at least 20, including all three wins in this series.
Howard scored 16 points in the Mavs’ Game 4 loss and only played six minutes in their Game 1 defeat due to a sprained ankle.
“We need him to play at a high level,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously we missed him a lot in Game 1 and he’s been toughing it out. His ankle has been really sore, but he’s stepped it up for us.”
Raja Bell’s calf injury has seemingly had a bigger impact on this series. He got hurt late in Game 1 and the Suns lost the next two games without Bell, one of their top 3-point shooters and emotional leaders. His return sparked Phoenix to victory in Game 4.
Bell had nine points in that game and played superb defense, but the calf bothered him more in Game 5 and he could not contribute as much defensively. He made just one of his five field goal attempts Thursday.
“As long as the series goes he gets a little better and he’ll be ready to go in Game 6,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “You know, this goes back to our house and we gotta take care of business.”
The series has turned testy over the last two games. Thomas was involved in minor altercations with Jason Terry in Game 4 and Nowitzki in Game 5. Bell also got a technical foul for arguing a call early in Thursday’s fourth quarter, and D’Antoni received another technical during the ensuing timeout.
“It’s a very intense series,” Mavs coach Avery Johnson said. “This is two teams that are really warriors, that are going at it. Everybody wants the prize, you know.”
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.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Mavericks - Nowitzki, 28.7 ppg and 12.1 rpg; Terry, 3.9 apg. Suns - Marion, 20.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg; Nash, 10.3 apg.