DALLAS -- Amare Stoudemire, they say, is only operating at about 80 percent capacity.
They'll love more Mavs-Suns
Jason Terry, they say, is slumping from the perimeter.
December games in the NBA, they always say, don't mean a whole lot because they can't compare to the stakes and passion we see in May and June.
All I can say is they, whoever they are, only screwed themselves if they weren't watching Thursday evening.
You wish you felt as springy on some of your best days as Eighty Percent Amare looked on this night, turning a seemingly standard pick-and-roll with 60-odd seconds to go into the sort of ridiculous alley-oop no one else would even try in crunch time.
You wish you could be struggling as deeply as Terry, who showed up for work averaging 15.2 points as a third option and shooting what I'd call a pretty decent 42.4 percent from 3-point range . . . and then promptly supplied 35 points and eight assists in support of Dirk Nowitzki's game-winning jumper.
You wish the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns played more than four times a season, since they seem incapable of giving us anything less than a nail-biter served with a side of playoff atmosphere, even when they're hooking up right after Christmas.
Dallas 101, Phoenix 99.
I pretty much got the show I was wishing for, although I certainly wouldn't have complained about an overtime or two.
The fourth quarter, especially, was that fascinating. Phoenix surging into a nine-point lead with Steve Nash resting on the bench and Jumaine Jones -- the eighth man on a team that likes to say it has "seven starters" -- draining two key triples. Dallas turning up the D after Nash's substantial rest to blank Phoenix on six straight possessions, most of them ending with a turnover or a hurried heave to beat the shot-clock buzzer. Stoudemire screening Terry all the way out at the 3-point line and then spinning away to the rim, where he rose to viciously flush Nash's lob and make it 97-97. Raja Bell enduring a nightmare sequence in which he threw the ball away trying to get it to a surrounded Nash with 31.5 ticks left, followed by a foul on Josh Howard not even 10 seconds later as Howard swooped in for a layup.
Howard committed a lane violation on the ensuing free throw, Nash rambled around without giving up his dribble to find Shawn Marion for a game-tying layup with 6.3 seconds to go and then Nowitzki drained the game-winner. With just over a second left in regulation and Marion shading him left, hoping to lure him into a drive down the middle, Nowitzki fired away without a dribble, looking awfully sure he was going to connect for a guy who really never had his shooting rhythm.
"That's just seven feet of good player," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, disappointed by the outcome but hardly discouraged.
It was billed as a measuring-stick game largely because of the long win streaks both teams have uncorked recently -- 15 straight wins for Phoenix, 12 for Dallas -- and because neither of those bursts featured much primo competition. But D'Antoni had some fun with the complaints about the comp, pointing out that Miami didn't exactly pay last season for its consistent failure to beat top teams.
"All those elite [regular-season] wins didn't help us," D'Antoni cracked. "They're the champs and we're not."
Fact is, Phoenix has plenty to feel good about as 2007 approaches. Stoudemire still looks rusty/shaky with some of his moves/decisions, but he has recouped a good chunk of the athleticism/explosiveness that made him special . . . and faster than anyone who saw him in summer league would have ever imagined.
He's starting, bit by bit, to look like the rebounding force and rim deterrent Phoenix so badly needs to get past Dallas and San Antonio in the West. Stoudemire also has quietly helped solve one of the Suns' big dilemmas coming into the season by, in D'Antoni's words, "giving up the elbow" to Boris Diaw.
Stoudemire and Diaw, remember, both like to operate at the free-throw line in screen/rolls with Nash. Amare's willingness to cede that spot to Diaw and attack from new angles has jump-started both of them, enabling Phoenix to keep those two on the floor together for long stretches alongside Marion.
"If we were .500 by Jan. 1, I'd have said we're OK," D'Antoni shared, reflecting on the struggles Stoudemire and Diaw endured during the Suns' 3-6 start.
As a result, D'Antoni's sees the 19-8 Suns as roughly "one and a half months ahead of schedule," irrespective of this result.
I didn't hear many complaints from the Mavs' side, either.
I still say Nowitzki has to work way too hard for open looks, at least for my liking, but the Mavs overcame numerous obstacles to hike the league's best record to 22-7. Jerry Stackhouse was out injured, Dallas' center combo of Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop was largely small-balled out of the game and the Suns shot 51 percent from the field . . . yet the Mavs managed to hold them under 100 points anyway.
"I would suspect we'll have a couple more of these battles," D'Antoni said. "But I'm pretty excited about what we're doing.
"What's today? Dec. 28th? We've got to get good by April 15th."
I might have been fooled, but I'm pretty sure I saw some April flashes on this Dec. 28. From both teams.
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki launches a 19-footer over Shawn Marion with 1.3 seconds left in a 101-99 Mavs win over the Suns.
Mike (Orlando): Do you see the Magic getting any help for Dwight Howard anytime soon? The offense is terrible without a serious outside threat.
Chad Ford: That's what they got J.J. Redick for ... right? Where are all of J.J.'s groupies now? Seriously, now that Hedo Turkoglu's back, they should be OK. One thing I can't get is why Darko Milicic doesn't get more minutes. He can look down right awful at times, but he's 20 years old and the team seems to click when both he and Howard are in the game together.
One major player agent, usually the overly cautious type, went so far as to tell Insider he "guarantees" Ron Artest will be traded, saying Sacramento has had a change of heart after believing earlier this season that the best way to move forward would be to deal Mike Bibby. One team to keep in mind in the whole Artest mix is Miami, as the Heat's interest in Allen Iverson showed how Pat Riley -- one of the few who would welcome the challenge of coaching a head case like Artest -- is looking to do something major in his effort to repeat.
Possible destinations: Clippers, Heat, Warriors
Mavs edge Suns, own NBA's best mark (22-7)
Chris Birck/Getty Images
Jazz guard Derek Fisher can point out that he is a Utah newcomer, but the result was the same against Tony Parker and the Spurs. The Jazz lost for the 15th straight time in San Antonio, 106-83.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
An NBA player agent, who requested anonymity, claimed that his client wanted out of Memphis if Mike Fratello wasn't let go.
"I know it's popular to blame the players," the agent told Insider. "But everyone in that locker room was miserable. Fratello's style of play and rotations made no sense. Mike's a good coach, but he wasn't the right coach for this team."
With Fratello out, West said he'll turn to a trusted aide to take the reins of the team -- Tony Barone, Sr.
"Tony is going to be our head coach," Grizzlies president Jerry West told ESPN.com. "He has a great familiarity with the players. He has a brilliant basketball mind. He has a great rapport individually with the team and he's a tough guy."
West said that any appointment would be on an interim basis until the ownership issue with the team is resolved. Owner Michael Heisley has turned in a cancellation notice for a proposed sale to a group led by Brian Davis and Christian Laettner. Nothing will be official either way until Jan. 15.
"It's been a huge distraction," West said. "I'm looking forward to reestablishing the great working relationship I've had with our owner, Michael Heisley."
Nuno (Lisbon, Portugal): Watching the Knicks Wednesday night without Quentin Richardson, Nate Robinson and Steve Francis (played only when they needed good players at the FT line) makes me wonder if they are better without so many players. Isiah Thomas should give David Lee the starting job and make a shorter rotation. Finally I see some hope!! Do you agree?
Chris Sheridan: You make a good point, Nuno, and it's no coincidence that the Knicks' recent surge has coincided with the shortening of the rotation through suspensions and Q's back injury. The guys on that team have been starved for a shortened rotation going all the way back to the start of last season under Larry Brown, and a big part of the problem for the Knicks is having too many players spreading the minutes too thin.
But since they can't get rid of any of their vets, it's a problem that's going to return once Nate and Quentin come back.
Andrew (NY): You alluded to this earlier, but in light of his actions, suspension, and the Knicks recent play, shouldn't Isiah bench "Nate the Great" or get rid of him? He's part of the problem, no?
Chris Sheridan: If Isiah wanted to move someone simply for the sake of moving someone, Nate would be the easiest to deal because he's still on his rookie contract. But Isiah seems to like Nate's feistiness, so I don't see it happening -- at least during this season. Check again over the summer when someone else might be in charge in New York and won't be so tolerant of Nate's knuckleheadedness.
Allen Iverson led the Nuggets with 44 points in his 700th career game. Iverson notches his 1st 40-pt game with the Nuggets and 77th of his career which ties him with Oscar Robertson for fourth all-time for most career 40-pt games in NBA history.
Most Career 40-Point Games