Updated: May 25, 2006, 10:00 PM ET

Suns rise, but Bell falls

DALLAS -- I don't think Boris Diaw misses Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.

I don't think Steve Nash minds the boos.

I don't think losing Raja Bell is how the Phoenix Suns wanted to start the Western Conference finals, but I don't think I'm ready to write them off and say they can't win this series without him.

Playoff Schedule
EAST FINALS
Miami 1, Detroit 0
Game 2: Thu., 8 ET, at DET

WEST FINALS
Phoenix 1, Dallas 0
Game 2: Fri., 8:30 ET, at DAL

The full playoff schedule

Not until we hear how soon Josh Howard is returning for Dallas.

Mostly, though . . .

Not after watching yet another Suns resurrection.

The defenseless and thin got thinner and more porous Wednesday night when Bell, one of the eight guys Mike D'Antoni was willing to play against the Mavericks and the closest thing Phoenix has to a tough guy, crumpled to floor after a jumper with a nasty-looking calf strain . . . and after making contact with no one.

Then the Suns snatched a Game 1 victory away from the Mavericks, with a liberated Diaw uncorking the game of his life, to remind you that D'Antoni's team, for all its holes and shortcomings, can rebound.

The Suns keep bouncing back and winning games that appear lost, adding this one to the great (OT) escapes against the Lakers (Game 6 in L.A.) and Clippers (Game 5 at home).

"We feel like we've overcome a lot of adversity this year to be where we are," Nash said, reveling in the late rally that netted a 121-118 triumph for the visitors.

"We want to see how good [it] can get."

Howard turned an ankle halfway through the first quarter when he landed on James Jones' foot and, worrisome for the Mavs, didn't play another minute. Dallas won't know for sure how bad it is until Howard undergoes an MRI on Thursday, but there was some postgame solace. Early indications suggest that the twist didn't have a multi-game look to it.

Bell, by contrast, went down in the sort of sudden manner that immediately makes you think Achilles' tear. The Suns' best perimeter defender has been all but ruled out of Friday's Game 2.

"I thought someone threw something at me from the stands," Bell said, searching like everyone else for an explanation for how his left leg could give so quickly.

If Bell can't come back at all, no matter what happens with Howard, it's another significant body blow for the Suns, who only got here by surviving seven-game marathons against the two L.A. teams . . . with essentially a seven-man rotation comprised of four small forwards and three guards.

Yet Dallas became the latest to learn that you dismiss the Suns at your own peril. The Mavs struggled to get the ball to Dirk Nowitzki against Shawn Marion's sticky D -- although Marion also looked hobbled by game's end -- and made every execution gaffe possible in the final few minutes. Phoenix, meanwhile, looked sharper and fresher than the Mavs in spite of a shorter turnaround, adapting quickly to the hosts' determination to defend the 3-point line by simply attacking the rim instead.

Maybe that's because the Suns were as delighted to see Dallas in this round -- as opposed to another round of getting pounded inside, this time by Tim Duncan -- as the Mavs were to topple mighty San Antonio.

Or maybe it's because the Suns were in trouble long before that 3-1 first-round deficit to Kobe Bryant's Lakers. They've actually been in trouble since mid-October, when Amare Stoudemire was forced to undergo microfracture knee surgery. Hence they're more practiced than anyone else at dealing with it.

Phoenix looked lost in pick-and-roll coverages once the Mavs shook their first-half slumber and were absolutely shredded by Devin Harris, who riddled Nash for a career playoff-high 30 points. Problem was, Dallas was equally unable to deal with the screen-roll aggression coming from Nash and Diaw, who hauled the Suns back from a couple of nine-point deficits in the fourth.

Mavs swingman Jerry Stackhouse implored the locals to boo Nowitzki's little buddy, really boo him, but the Suns were pleased to hear that. "It'll only make Steve better," D'Antoni said an hour before tipoff. Nash then made his coach look smart with a couple of his usual circus shots and, most crucially, 10 consecutive points in the final period after Phoenix fell behind, 114-105, with 3:43 to play.

Nash didn't help with stopping Harris, true, but he looked a bit like the guy who absolutely torched his old team in last spring's second round, when the Mavs dared the pass-master to score first. At the very least, Nash's 27 points and 16 assists amounted to compelling evidence that those three days off before Game 7 against the Clips put some juice back into his back and hamstrings.

"In this building," said Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry, "Steve's always going to have fuel."

Diaw, meanwhile, looked reborn. He confessed in the last round to being a bit demoralized by trying to deal with the size and force of Brand and Kaman for seven games, but he's back to loving life as the Suns' 6-8 "center," knowing he's at the top of Dallas' list of matchup worries. On the busted inbounds play to set up his game-winning jumper -- a play Dallas knew was coming with the Frenchman well into a career playoff-high 34 points -- Diaw was checked with the too-small Stackhouse and converted coolly.

"It's easy to put labels on people and it's a lot of times not even close to the truth," D'Antoni said, recalling Diaw's reputation as a "soft, non-competitive player" when the Suns stole him from Atlanta in the Joe Johnson trade.

It's likewise easy to say that the short-handed Suns eventually have to run out of gas or run out of Amare-less miracles. Unless you have to play them.

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Clutch Comeback

Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images
Boris Diaw launches a last-second shot that gave the Suns the lead for good, 119-118, in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.


One Final Order, Two Patrons
dirk

nash

Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash did go to dinner Tuesday night on the eve of the Dallas vs. Phoenix series, as they did on off nights throughout much of last spring's showdown in the second round.

Nash, though, says there wasn't much discussion beyond basketball, except for the rousing ovation Nowitzki received from restaurant patrons when their group walked in . . . and a little factoid they're both still struggling to digest.

"One of us," Nash said, "is going to the NBA Finals.

"Amazing."

If it's hard for either one to believe, there's a good reason. This will be the first June since 1998 that the Western Conference is not represented in the NBA Finals by either the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Lakers.

Utah played Chicago in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals, with Nowitzki and Nash joining the Mavs on draft day in '98 shortly after the Bulls' sixth and final title in the Michael Jordan era.

-- Marc Stein



Why Bargnani Could Be The One
The lottery results are in and the Toronto Raptors are the big winners this year.

At this point very little is set in stone. Expect this mock draft to fluctuate greatly over the course of the next five weeks.

The process of team workouts has just started. Over the next few weeks the Orlando NBA pre-draft camp and the Reebok Eurocamp will dramatically alter the face of the draft.

But for now, here's our best stab, after talking to numerous NBA team sources, at figuring out how the draft might go in June.

CHAD FORD'S MOCK DRAFT
PICK
TEAM
PLAYER
VITALS

Toronto

Andrea Bargnani
  Position: PF
  Height: 7-0
  Weight: 225
  Age: 20
  Country: Italy
The skinny: Raptors president Bryan Colangelo needs a center and a point guard, but there is not a legitimate candidate to be the No. 1 pick at either position. So Colangelo will go with the player he considers to be the best available. He knows Bargnani better than anyone else does and will find a way to play him with Chris Bosh.

Chicago (via New York)

Tyrus Thomas
  Position: PF
  Height: 6-9
  Weight: 229
  Age: 19
  School: LSU
The skinny: It's a tough call here between Tyrus Thomas and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge would give them the low post scoring they need, but word is that the Bulls think Thomas has more potential and a bigger heart. Don't be surprised if the Bulls shop their two picks for a veteran.

Charlotte

Adam Morrison
  Position: SF
  Height: 6-8
  Weight: 205
  Age: 21
  School: Gonzaga
The skinny: The Bobcats need a scorer and a small forward. Not only is Morrison a great fit on the court, but he'll also get fans in the seats. But before we chisel Morrison's name in stone, don't count out Rudy Gay here either. GM Bernie Bickerstaff loves long, athletic players with great pedigrees and told me on Tuesday that he felt like Gay was getting a bad rap.

See the full Chad Ford story Insider


In The 'Zona

Boris Diaw's 34 points help the Suns take a 121-118 Game 1 win over the Mavericks. Two Steve Nash 3s in the final 2:11 were big.

Suns Take Game 1



Bell Leaves Game
hobbled bell
AP Photo/Donna McWilliam
Suns guard Raja Bell is helped off the court after injuring his left leg late in his team's win over Dallas.


Extreme Behavior
dwyane wade

Wednesday's Best
Suns guard Steve Nash: His team seemed to be entering Pat Burke territory before the Canada mint struck with the Mavs leading 114-105 and 3:43 left. He scored 10 straight points, then fed Shawn Marion on a go-ahead dunk with 43 seconds left. M-V-P.

Wednesday's Worst
Dallas defense: What happened to that season-long dedication to D? Mavs were not exactly contesting every shot as the Suns shot 55.3 percent from the field, and gave up a playoff-high 121 points in the loss to the Suns.

Quote of the Day
"A year ago I was in France on the French Riviera."
-- Suns center Boris Diaw, who scored 34 points and the game-winner against the Mavs on Wednesday, describing his early vacation after warming the Hawks' bench last year.

See how all 18 who played stacked up
Hollinger playoff stats (Tim on top)
Plus/minus stats from 82games.com

-- Andrew Ayres



The Line's The Story
The papers will say the Suns won Game 1 of the Western Conference finals thanks to a fourth-quarter rally and a career performance from Boris Diaw.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll see Phoenix won by winning an important "game within the game" at the defensive end -- keeping Dallas off the free-throw line.

During the regular season, Dallas earned .364 free throws per field-goal attempt, the seventh-best mark in the league. That ballooned to .388 in the postseason, and Dirk Nowitzki in particular tormented opponents from the line. The Dallas 7-footer averaged a whopping 10.6 free throw tries per game heading into Game 1, including 16 in the Mavs' Game 7 overtime win over San Antonio.

Conversely, Phoenix was the NBA's second-best team at keeping opponents off the line, surrendering .274 free throws per field-goal attempt -- only Detroit was better. Despite a glaring lack of size, the Suns rarely resort to grabbing and hacking bigger players in the paint. Instead, they either double-team quickly or put their hands up and hope for the best. Their talent for avoiding fouls was one of the few bright spots in a poor defensive performance during the second half of the season and first two rounds of the playoffs.

Dirk still got his free-throw tries against Phoenix on Wednesday -- he went 9-for-10 from the stripe -- but the other Mavs were frozen out. Despite a blazing-fast pace, the Mavs only attempted 23 free throws, meaning the Suns allowed a rate of .247 free throws per field-goal attempt that was even stingier than their stellar regular-season average. Better yet, the Suns did this on the road in an arena that's fast getting a reputation for home cookin'.

It seems strange to say any aspect of the Suns' defense was the key to victory in a game where they gave up 118 points. But this is a strange team, and the Phoenix offense is so good it just needs a little help from its defense. By stemming the Dallas free-throw parade, the Suns' defense gave them a chance, and Phoenix stole the opener as a result.

-- John Hollinger



Dime Mailbag: Pistons Not Dead Yet
Readers react to Chris Sheridan's May 24 Daily Dime:

What's with the ultra-quick dismissal of the Pistons? They lose a game by five points, and Chris Sheridan thinks they might be SWEPT? Did he think the Nets would sweep the Heat after their beatdown (a bigger beatdown than the Heat gave the Pistons) of Miami in Miami? The Pistons may only get one day off between games but so will Miami. Shaq has a habit of not playing his best when he is on just one day of rest.
-- James (Flint, MI)

Saying the Heat won Game 1 easily, and will win the series easily, is one way of analyzing Tuesday night. Another way is to say that the Pistons shot the ball terribly and still only lost by 5. We'll see who's really overmatched in the next few days.
-- Jon (NYC)

Your article had some good points, and I appreciate your point of view, but if you think the Pistons may get blown out of this series, you're crazy. Period. You're talking about one of the most resilient teams in the league. No matter who doubts them or writes them off (after one game) they keep winning. Sure they struggled, may have been dead legs, may have misplaced complacency.

But if the Pistons make shots (and they shot HORRIBLE, and they were open shots, too) and play with the energy and urgency they need to play with, this will be a competitive series that they have a great chance of winning. So go ahead, write them off, and expect to hear back from me when all is said and done.
-- Curtis (Lansing)

Game 1 was the epitome of rest and confidence vs. fatigue and uncertainty. When Detroit didn't push the pace when Wade and Shaq were in foul trouble, that was an indication that indeed Detroit is not ready for the Heat's energy level. Detroit's renowned resiliency will be tested greatly.
-- David Greene (Alameda, CA)

The general befuddlement at the Pistons' heretofore weak, uninspired playoff performance is amusing. A Flip Saunders-coached team underperforming when the stakes grow higher? Surely you jest! Has such a thing ever happened before?
--DJ (San Mateo, CA)

• Send us your reactions



Vote: Taking The Heat
We asked SportsNation some questions. Your answers:

Which team will win the Eastern Conference finals?

30.4% Heat, 4-2
26.0% Pistons, 4-2
20.3% Pistons, 4-3
16.3% Heat, 4-3
Other: 7.5 percent

Which team will win the Western Conference finals?

41.6% Mavericks, 4-2
15.9% Suns, 4-3
14.8% Suns, 4-2
13.1% Mavericks, 4-3
12.4% Mavericks, 4-1
1.3% Mavericks, 4-0
0.5% Suns, 4-0
0.4% Suns, 4-1

Cast your vote

 

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