PHOENIX (AP)—Avery Johnson put the “D” in Dallas. Then the coach put the Mavericks in the NBA finals for the first time in the franchise’s 26-year history.
Dirk Nowitzki shook off an awful start and the Mavericks’ defense shut down Phoenix in a second-half comeback, beating the Suns 102-93 on Saturday night to win the Western Conference finals 4-2.
Johnson, the NBA coach of the year in his first full season, focused on adding toughness and defense to a team known as a high-scoring, finesse squad.
“That’s the kind of defense we play under Avery,” Nowitzki said, “and it won us the game in the second half.”
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, with the conference trophy perched atop his head like a crown, suddenly found himself in a place he’d never been—finals-bound.
“For the first time in my life,” Cuban said, “I’m speechless.”
Nowitzki, coming off a career playoff high 50 points in Game 5, scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half and the Mavericks clinched a series on the road for the third time in three tries in these playoffs.
“We’ve been a good road team all season long, we believed in each other,” Nowitzki said. “We went through some ups and downs this season, but the playoffs is all about showing heart and playing together.”
Dallas opens the NBA finals at home against the Miami Heat on Thursday night. It will be a showdown of finals’ first-timers, the first time that’s happened since Baltimore played Milwaukee in 1971.
“Going into this season, nobody had Miami and Dallas in the finals,” Johnson said. “If you did, you won a lot of money.”
The Suns, trying to survive a fifth elimination game in the playoffs, appeared well on their way to sending this series back to Dallas for a Game 7: They shot out to a 16-point first-quarter lead and were up by as many as 18 in the second.
But the Phoenix offense withered in a flurry of foul trouble, and the Suns fell in the conference finals for the second year in a row.
“An 18-point lead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in a pressure game like this, especially in the first half,” Nash said.
Dallas outscored the Suns 63-42 in the second half.
“It took a lot of energy for us to come back,” Terry said, “but it took a lot out of them to let us come back, and then we were just full steam ahead.”
Dallas used a 17-2 outburst to claim its first lead since 2-0, 68-66 on DaSagana Diop’s rebound stuff shot with 9:42 remaining. Stackhouse’s 3-pointer with 5:01 left put Dallas up 83-77. Howard’s 3-pointer at 1:29 clinched it at 93-83.
“This was a special night for us,” Johnson said. “We were so bad in the first half and so good in the second half. The way we turned it on from the middle of the third quarter on into the fourth was incredible.”
An emotional Suns coach Mike D’Antoni praised the character of his undersized unit, which was shorthanded even before Bell slightly tore a calf muscle in Game 1, then missed the next two games. He played the final three, but was never his old self.
“Raja is probably the most courageous guy I’ve ever seen, and he was playing on half a leg,” D’Antoni said.
Nash thought the team may have simply worn down, unable to keep up the energy that was so necessary for its success without big Amare Stoudemire, who missed all but three games this season because of knee surgery.
The Suns needed seven games to beat the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers in the first two rounds, and led at the half in five of the six games against Dallas.
“I don’t know if you can pin it all on fatigue,” Nash said, “but I also think it would be ignorant not to say it played a part.”
Nowitzki, 3-for-13 for a season-low 11 points in his previous game in Phoenix, was 2-for-9 with eight points in the first half, and the Mavericks trailed 51-39 at the break.
His second three-point play of the quarter—on Tim Thomas’ fourth foul— cut the lead to 64-56, the first time the Mavs had been within single digits since the game’s opening minutes.
His 18-footer cut it to 66-60, followed by his 12-footer that sliced Phoenix’s lead to 66-62 with 58.2 seconds to play in the third.
Barbosa’s layup was waved off as a 24-second shot clock violation with 9.2 seconds to play, and the score was 66-62 entering the fourth quarter.
Diaw made eight of 10 shots, mostly on driving layups, en route to 20 first-half points and eight rebounds.
Phoenix, outrebounded by Dallas in each of the first five games in the series, had a 24-17 advantage on the boards in the first half. But the Mavericks finished with a 39-36 advantage on the boards.
There were 26 fouls called in the first half, 13 on each team. Four Suns had three apiece—Diaw, Bell, Thomas and Barbosa. Terry had three fouls and played just three minutes in the first half for Dallas. Devin Harris also drew three first-half fouls for the Mavs.
The Mavericks came out flat and the Suns pounced on the opportunity, bolting to a 26-10 lead on Marion’s two free throws with 1:08 to go in the first quarter. Phoenix led 29-14 at the end of the period.
Dallas, in its lowest-scoring opening quarter this postseason, was 6-for-21 shooting (29 percent) compared with the Suns’ 11-for-18 (61 percent).
Dallas’ previous low for a first quarter in these playoffs was 17 in Game 2 of the first round against Memphis. … Dallas won despite making only 3-of-20 3-pointers. … Diaw had six of Phoenix’s 18 turnovers. … Nash has played in more playoff games (86) than any other active player without making it to the finals.