DALLAS – Outside his locker room, something unseen and unheard nudged Mike D'Antoni down that dark path. Once he gets going, there's no stopping him. After the biggest game of the NBA season so far and the biggest victory for his Phoenix Suns, unprompted, this beautiful basketball mind was determined to deliver validation to his vision of championship basketball.
"I just marvel at the people who say that this doesn't work in the playoffs," D'Antoni started, and he was gone now, his words unnecessary on a night when everyone's eyes could see for themselves. Of course, yes, the Suns can do this.
"I don't know why (people say) it doesn't work," D'Antoni continued. "Last season, we were missing Amare (Stoudemire), Kurt (Thomas), and Raja (Bell) gets hurt, and we go to six games. It's not like this is awful."
"OK, OK, it doesn't work, but I don't know why they say that. But it works. They work. If we hit the big shots, and get lucky, we can go all the way …"
He had reason to be emboldened on Wednesday night at the American Airlines Center, because this 129-127 double-overtime victory over the Mavericks had risen out of those Suns bellies, out of the might of Amare Stoudemire and the sleight of Steve Nash. This game was done, gone, the 24th straight Dallas victory here complete, until the strangest thing happened.
Nash, the two-time NBA MVP, made a bid for his third, reaching out and ripping the trophy back out of the hands of his old teammate, Dirk Nowitzki. The Suns had gone out early, and the Mavericks had come back with a crippling blow, winning by 16 points early in the fourth, by six points with 31.9 seconds remaining and five with 18.9 seconds left, when Nash turned a rollicking, rousing arena into stunned silence.
He pump-faked Josh Howard into a dreadful foul beyond the three-point line with 14.4 seconds to play, hitting the three free throws. Soon, there was Nowitzki at the free-throw line, cries of "MVP! … MVP!" crashing against him, until he missed his second free throw of the final 32.7 seconds of regulation. Now, Nash drove the ball back down the floor, within 111-108, and missed a three-pointer with five seconds left. Only, Shawn Marion wouldn't let the night die, wouldn't let the Mavericks almost assure themselves the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Marion chased down the rebound and handed the ball back to Nash.
Asked later what he thought when that second Nash three-pointer made its way to the rim, Nowitzki laughed that knowing laugh. "I thought the first one was going in," he said, but he knew the second three would drop, and it did with 2.7 seconds, and those two jump shots that Dirk had to end regulation, and then the second overtime, would bounce away from the rim.
This was a night that Nowitzki could've clinched the MVP for himself because he would've pushed the Suns back too far to catch Dallas, but he didn't do it. He missed free throws. He missed shots with the game on the line. This is still the season of Nowitzki's life, but it was a rare night when someone else was bigger and better.
Nowitzki left an opening for Phoenix. Now within 2½ games of the Mavericks, the Suns still have Dallas back in Arizona on April 1.
"Yeah, and they may not lose two more games the rest of the year," D'Antoni sniffed.
The Mavericks and Suns are the two best teams in the West, and they're too talented to believe that a Game 7 on the road would spell doom. Dallas beat San Antonio in the conference finals a year ago on the road. What's more, everyone knows those Spurs are so tough, so secure in themselves, that they could win the West anywhere, anytime.
What promises to be different about these playoffs is Stoudemire, who has completely conquered microfracture knee surgery. "He's back to his old self," Nowitzki said, sighing. For the damage the Mavericks do to the Suns inside – beating them senseless on the boards 55-38 Wednesday, for example – Stoudemire has re-emerged as a frightening force in this fight. He had 41 points and 10 boards, and when hitting that 15-to-17 footer now, Nowitzki is right to call him "unstoppable."
Still, the Mavericks had stopped Stoudemire, because the game belonged to them until those missed throws, until they gave the two-time MVP, Nash, a renewed case to join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as winners of three straight trophies. Before the game, Nash bestowed an endorsement on Nowitzki for the award, insisting that he had been the best player on the best team in the NBA. Now, there's still a chance that distinction could go to Nash, who finished with 32 points (including 10 in the final minute of regulation), 16 assists and eight rebounds,
Still, Nash seems unconcerned, dismissing that pursuit for an award that will forever harbor him in history. If Nash can somehow will Phoenix past Dallas for the best record in the West, well, he's earned the MVP again. Between Nowitzki and him, it's that close of a call. Nevertheless, this was an important victory for the Suns, a comeback against all odds that they'll slip into their back pockets until they meet again in Phoenix.
The buzzer sounded Wednesday night, with two overtimes and the best game of the season done, and it felt like nothing was finished, nothing resolved. Pity poor Mike D'Antoni, who was still going on and on outside his locker room.
Most of all, he's desperate for you to believe that the ferocious speed of these Suns won't fail them in the spring. So he kept going, insisting that, "The Lakers did it. The Boston Celtics did it that way. Bill Russell was a 6-9 center who ran up and down the floor. It does work, but we didn't invent this thing. It just hasn't worked in the last few years because no one's been doing it."
Well, the Suns are doing it, and they're making the Mavs wonder just what it is they'll ever have to do to make them, make the MVP, go away this season.
- the Mavericks