DALLAS – After his awful 3-for-13, 11-point dud in Game 4, you knew Dirk Nowitzki would have a big game against the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 on Thursday. That's what superstars do – they respond to pressure and adversity.
But 50 points? That was ridiculous – or "reDirkulous," as they say in Dallas.
In the Dallas Mavericks' 117-101 victory, Nowitzki made 14 of 26 shots from the field and 17 of 18 free throws to go with 12 rebounds in what was one of the great performances in NBA playoff history.
Nowitzki made up his mind to attack the Suns' defense after settling for long, fadeaway jumpers – "bailout shots," as Avery Johnson called them – in Game 4 and only making five trips to the foul line. Early in Thursday's game, he went to the rim time and again, and after establishing an inside presence, Nowitzki went outside, making five of six three-point attempts.
When the Suns caught fire and took a seven-point lead late in the third quarter, Dirk took over. He led a huge Dallas run – scoring 23 of the Mavericks' 30 points at one juncture – to carry his team to within one win of the NBA Finals.
It was a performance that conjured up the great names of the NBA's past – Bird, Magic, Jordan, you name it. Nowitzki was that good. He personally willed his team to the victory with a stunning display of skill, desire and athleticism.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Howard – With most of the Mavs struggling, Howard gave Nowitzki a big lift with a great game of his own. He slashed to the rim and drained jumpers, pouring in 23 points for Dallas. (The Mavericks are now 24-0 this season when Howard has scored 20 or more points.) Howard also served as the multi-talented defender Avery Johnson needed to slow down a Phoenix team that had caught fire in the second half. Johnson has the luxury of putting Howard on any Sun that plays – he's that versatile. He uses his speed and size to stay in front of offensive players and still challenge jump shots. When Howard was out of the game, Dallas had almost no chance to stop Phoenix. With him, however, the Mavs were able to mix and match different lineups and come up with stops when they needed them.
KEY SEQUENCE OF THE NIGHT
With the Suns up 77-70 with two minutes to go in the third quarter, the sky appeared to be falling for Dallas. Phoenix could do no wrong – they had the Mavs spread out, they were running and gunning and Tim Thomas was draining threes like they were layups. Also, Howard was on the bench with four fouls. The American Airlines Center crowd could sense that the Suns were poised for the upset, and so could Nowitzki. (He later said he "felt the season slipping away.") Johnson called a timeout and settled down his team, and Dallas closed the quarter on a 12-4 run without Howard. The Mavericks suddenly had the lead – and the momentum – going into the fourth quarter, and with Howard returning and Nowitzki taking over, Dallas never looked back.
BEST PLAYER ON THE LOSING SIDE
Tim Thomas – He was on fire for Phoenix in the second and third quarters, helping the Suns bounce back from an early 14-point deficit. Thomas made six of eight three pointers and had the Mavs' defense on a string during his spurt. When Dallas defenders tried to get to the perimeter to challenge his shots, he took the ball to the hoop and powered home dunks. But in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks were able to slow down Thomas, holding him to just one shot attempt as Dallas outscored Phoenix 35-20 to pull away.
QUESTION OF THE NIGHT
There was a lot of griping during the season about how the playoff brackets were determined. As it turns out, this is one of the most exciting playoffs I can remember with many close games, lots of scoring and several surprises. Sure, the Dallas-San Antonio series might have been better as a Western Conference final, but the Dallas-Phoenix series may end up being just as good. And any of the remaining four teams can win it all – yeah, even Detroit. Did the NBA just get lucky or should the playoff format not be messed with in the future?
Jeff, the playoffs would have been great regardless of the playoff seedings. In a perfect world, San Antonio and Dallas would have been on opposite sides of the bracket, and if that had been the case, we would have seen the Suns and the Mavericks a round earlier. Either way would have been fine because we're seeing incredibly entertaining basketball. The rules changes from the past few seasons have truly taken effect, and the result is a smaller, faster, more dynamic game. No longer are we seeing the big stiffs placed out on the floor simply to guard each other. More and more, we're seeing teams put at least four multitalented, versatile players on the court at the same time, and sometimes five. Phoenix always has five shooters together, making it almost impossible to cover them. This is the wave of the future, and it's a sight for sore eyes for basketball fans. Get used to it – regardless of the playoff seeding changes next year.