Updated: May 27, 2006, 8:22 PM ET

Howard shines, Suns fade

DALLAS -- This was Josh Howard's night. This was his career night. This was Howard going from game-time decision to game-changer, even though he hadn't shed the hot pack on his ankle -- hadn't even changed into his uniform shorts -- by the time Avery Johnson was running through his final pre-game instructions.

Now for what it wasn't.

Playoff Schedule
WEST FINALS
Phoenix 1, Dallas 1
Game 3: Sun., 8:30 ET, at PHO

EAST FINALS
Miami 1, Detroit 1
Game 3: Sat., 8 ET, at MIA

The full playoff schedule

This was not some surrender. This was not Steve Nash showing us his Kobe Bryant imitation. This was not a show of mercy to Mark Cuban's team, which is the last team that can expect such a gesture.

So scrap any such suspicions.

The reason Nash attempted only one second-half shot for the Phoenix Suns on Friday night?

There were two reasons, actually.

Reason No. 1: Nash's determination to create shot opportunities for his teammates went too far in this Game 2 and gradually took him out of the crunch-time attack mode he's known to shift into whenever he comes back to Dallas . . . prompting Nash to bash himself afterward for losing his aggressiveness.

Reason No. 2: The Mavericks did what they didn't do in Game 1 by nudging him toward the sidelines more and frequently sending two defenders at Nash after halftime . . . thereby conceding open looks at the 3-point line.

When Phoenix finally cooled off late, to go with the Suns' 1-for-13 freeze from the floor to close the first quarter, Dallas had the impetus to secure a must-have 105-98 triumph that finally gives it a Western Conference finals victory in its own building.

This was the fifth time that the Mavericks tried for it, having lost all three of their home games to San Antonio in the 2003 West finals. Then came Wednesday night's opener against the Suns, in which Nash's late flurry of 10 consecutive points propelled Phoenix to a stunning comeback win and invited memories of the little Canadian's second-round shredding of his old team last spring.

In Game 1, Dallas rarely left 3-point shooters like Tim Thomas and Raja Bell, determined to prevent Phoenix from riddling the hosts with triples. The problem? That gave Nash and Boris Diaw more space in the lane to carve the Mavs up with pick-and-rolls.

A more concerted effort to force the ball out of Nash's hands in Game 2, especially after he had racked up 14 points and eight assists by halftime, meant that the Mavs were opening themselves up to a long-range barrage. But they survived when the Suns missed six of their final seven tries from behind the 3-point arc after a Thomas 3 cut Dallas' lead to 90-87 with 6:03 to play.

"We could have said, 'Don't double him and let him shoot,' " said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, bristling at questions suggesting that Nash had suddenly strayed from his instructions or instincts.

"But they [wouldn't] listen."

The same holds for Howard, who ignored the doomsayers forecasting an absence of five to seven days. Like Bell, who's determined to play for Phoenix in Sunday's Game 3 even though common sense says that's way to soon to return from a partial calf tear, No. 5 insisted he was never going to miss the game that could have dropped Dallas to 0-5 at American Airlines Center in this round . . . and, worse, into a fatal 0-2 hole.

An NBA Finals berth has never been more realistic for the Mavs, wobbly as they looked in their first two runs with the Suns, so Howard won't even acknowledge that he felt any real discomfort. He told a skeptical postgame audience: "I'm 95." Operating at 95-percent capacity, in other words.

Then again . . .

As spry as he looked from Friday's jump, who could argue? He was line-driving jumpers in from all over the floor to amass 29 points in support of Dirk Nowitzki's 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.

"And he mixed in his three-ball at the right time," said Johnson, referring to Howard's three triples.

The Mavericks -- also grateful to see what proved to be a rather crucial 36-to-11 edge in free-throw attempts -- thus improved to 22-0 this season when Howard scores at least 20 points. They likewise held Phoenix under 100 points and can lift team spirits further by reminding themselves that they haven't lost a single game in this series in which Howard plays more than six minutes.

The Suns, though, will undoubtedly console themselves with the idea that they so nearly went up 2-0 on the road, with Bell joining Amare Stoudemire in street clothes and with Nash waiting until the final 3.7 seconds of regulation to finally flip a short jumper at the rim. (It did drop, for the record.)

"In hindsight I would have maybe tried to be a little more aggressive, but I kept feeling like I was making the right play," said Nash, who finished with just 16 points and 11 assists after his big opening half. "I was drawing two guys and passing to the open man. That's the type of player I am. I try to make the right play and when the right time comes, you want to be really aggressive.

"But still mission somewhat accomplished to get one of these [in Dallas]," Nash added, "and hopefully we'll play a little better at home."

Figure on Nash remembering all of his missions when this thing moves to Phoenix.

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From Sore To Soar: Howard Rises To Occasion

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Mavs forward Josh Howard reached for the sky against the Suns, netting 29 points despite a bone bruise that knocked him out of Game 1. "It was sore, but I was able to keep playing," said Howard, who decided to play about an hour before tipoff.


Dallas Has Superior Plan B's
barbosa

If there was one thing the Suns could have looked forward to in Game 2, it was that they figured to be even more offensively potent than usual. While Raja Bell's calf injury deprived them of their best perimeter defender, it cleared a spot in the starting lineup for lightning quick guard Leandro Barbosa. Considering he averaged 18.8 points per 40 minutes in the regular season and shot even better than Bell (44.4 percent) on 3-pointers, the Mavs had to be fearing another offensive outburst from Phoenix.

Alas, it didn't work out that way. Not only did Barbosa fail to improve the Suns' offense, he actively made it worse. The Brazilian blur shot 3-for-15 from the floor and failed to earn a single free throw, finishing with eight points in 38 minutes. On a night when Phoenix defended fairly well (by its standards) and Suns from the Northern Hemisphere shot 50 percent from the floor, Barbosa's failure was clearly the difference between winning and losing.

Barbosa's rough night underscored one of the key differences between the two teams -- quality depth. Though Barbosa couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni felt he had no choice but to leave him out there. His only other options were Eddie House, who had already earned a vote of no-confidence in the previous round, and James Jones, whose completely unexpected Theo Ratliff impersonation (six blocks?!?!) couldn't help him out of his playoff-long offensive funk.

Contrast that with Mavs coach Avery Johnson, who reshuffled the deck before Game 2 for a second straight series, and then did it again in the second half. Erick Dampier (in Game 1) and Keith Van Horn (in Game 2) both got extended shots in the middle against Phoenix before the Little General turned to DeSagana Diop down the stretch.

Friday, The Diop solution was the one that finally worked, as he became the first Mav to somewhat contain Boris Diaw. The key, however, wasn't that Diop got the job done, but that he was the third player Johnson tried. It's not just at the center spot he can do this either -- 11 Mavs have seen important minutes in the playoffs, and it would shock nobody to see any of them take the floor in a crucial situation.

Those options simply aren't available to D'Antoni. In his world, Plan A has to work, because there isn't a Plan B waiting on the bench. Tonight, we saw the result when Plan A fails. D'Antoni had no choice but to ride out a rough night from Barbosa, and as a result left Dallas with a tough loss in a game that was eminently winnable.

-- John Hollinger



How The Heat Can Rise

Miami looked flat with a lack of defensive energy in Game 2. You cannot win in the playoffs if you lose the hustle game and the Heat did just that. They got beat to loose balls, offensive rebounds and on second-chance points.

The Heat must decide what they're going to do with the Tayshaun Prince matchup in Game 3. He torched the Miami defense for an easy 24 points and was all over the offensive glass with six rebounds. Antoine Walker is better suited to guard Rasheed Wallace than shadowing Prince, but making that adjustment would force Pat Riley to sit Udonis Haslem and play James Posey on Prince. Walker has not been able to take advantage of Prince offensively, thus Riley might be forced to change his strategy with this matchup.

Riley played Alonzo Mourning together with Shaquille O'Neal in the second half to bring more toughness to their frontline, but Zo struggled to guard Rasheed. Zo cannot move quick enough to blitz and get back to Rasheed on Detroit's pick-and-rolls. He was always one step late and Sheed scored nine straight points during that matchup.

The Heat utilized a 2-3 zone at times during Game 2. It was effective. Look for them to use it again in the series. The zone slowed down Detroit, made them stand around and shoot jump shots. If the Heat use this defense again they must do a much better job boxing out in the zone.

Read the full Scouts Inc. preview Insider


Dallas Rules The D

Dirk Nowitzki had 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, and Josh Howard scored 29 points, but the main reason the Mavericks beat the Suns 105-98 was their defense.

Mavs Even Series, 1-1



Failure To Launch
hobbled bell
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Suns guard Steve Nash, who took only one shot in the second half, watches the closing minutes of the Mavs' Game 2 win.


Extreme Behavior
josh howard

Friday's Best
Mavs forward Josh Howard: A bone bruise knocked him out of Game 1's opening minutes. But he returns in strong fashion, scoring 29 points. The Mavericks are now 22-0 this season when he scores at least 20.

udonis haslem

Friday's Worst
Suns guard Leandro Barbosa: The last time Raja Bell missed a game (suspended for Kobe chopping), Brazil's baller went off for 22. But this time with Bell out, Barbosa's shooting was the weak link. He made 3-of-15 shots, good for eight points. Blame it on Rio.

Quote of the Day
"In the first game, it was like [the Suns] were playing against themselves. We had some Mavericks in most of the plays tonight, which I thought was a key for us."
-- Mavs coach Avery Johnson on his team's improved Game 2 defense

See how all 18 who played stacked up
Hollinger playoff stats (Dirk active leader)
Plus/minus stats from 82games.com

-- Andrew Ayres



Mask Gone, Diop Plays Big
barbosa

DeSagana Diop stopped me before Friday's opening tip and had the answer before I could even ask the question.

"I don't want to wear the mask," Diop said, "but they're going to make me wear it."

He was wrong, though. Diop's superiors with the Dallas Mavericks did allow the 7-footer to ditch the mask, thereby exposing his busted nose, after he tried to wear his Rip Hamilton-style faceshield for a few possessions in the first quarter.

It's a concession from the Mavs which apparently prompted Diop to respond with maybe his best game all season.

In the big Game 2 upset -- and not because of the broken nose -- Diop logged nearly 32 minutes in Dallas' 105-98 victory. It's an upset because Mavs coach Avery Johnson didn't give him a single second of playing time in Game 1 and limited Erick Dampier to just 17 minutes in the opener, with Johnson believing that the Suns' relentless pace and smallish lineup gave his centers no one to guard and thus no way to play against Phoenix.

Yet that changed 48 hours later, which was huge for the hosts for multiple reasons. For starters, Johnson's first big Game 2 tweak (starting Keith Van Horn at center) proved a non-starter. But more importantly: Dallas' well-chronicled improvements at the defensive end, suspect as they might seem to longtime Mavs skeptics, depend on having Diop or Dampier in there as deterrent at the rim. Without a big man to discourage drivers, Dallas' defense doesn't look all that improved.

Facing the prospect of an 0-2 hole, Johnson decided that Dampier -- acquired in the summer of 2004, remember, with funds Dallas declined to use to re-sign Steve Nash -- wouldn't play at all. But Diop proved sufficiently active and effective to play virtually the entire fourth quarter and contribute four points, 11 boards and two blocks.

"This [Phoenix] team burns any team that plays fives," Johnson said. "They've been doing it all year. It's not just us.

"[But] we need his interior defense, because when they get to the basket, we've got to have somebody back there that can have a chance at getting a block for us."

Now to see if Diop can move quickly enough to stay on the floor from here . . . or if the Suns can speed the pace back to a place where Diop is forced to reunite with his sidelined mask.

-- Marc Stein at American Airlines Center in Dallas



Sixth Sense For Heat
Neel (Michigan): Why do analysts have Miami winning in 7? If they are going to win, it has to be in six games or less. Game 7 is in Detroit and we all know that game 7's are energy-packed games which favors Detroit. When they play with energy on the defensive end and have the crowd behind them they are tough to beat. Just look at game 7 versus the Cavs. Do you agree?

Chris Sheridan: Yes, which is why I picked Heat in 6. I'm the only guy among ESPN's NBA team, by the way, that picked the Suns and/or the Heat. I picked 'em both, and I went with Suns in 7 because their brand of ball needs no homecourt advantage if they've got things clicking.

Read the full Chris Sheridan chat Insider



Dime Mailbag
Your thoughts on the May 26 Daily Dime about Heat-Pistons Game 2:

I know some of you are going to be tempted to write about the stirring Miami comeback and how it's evidence that Detroit is done. But please, make sure you end each sentence "with an assist from Dick Bavetta." I think we all know that the Pistons really won that game by about 8, not 4.
-- Alex (Champaign, IL)

The Pistons are making me miserable with their erratic, lazy, arrogant play, which is exactly why they found themselves in a Game 7 situation with San Antonio last year. My prediction: The Pistons will continue their undisciplined play, always thinking they can "turn it on" anytime they want, and will fail to win the NBA Championship again this year, too.
-- Mt. Clemens, Michigan

You like that [Chris] Sheridan? The Pistons came back and tied the series. Please maintain your stance that the Heat will win the series, please.
-- David (Sydney Australia)

Hey Dime, the Pistons' motto comes from a 1992 classic from Pete Rock & CL Smooth (If It Ain't Rough, It Ain't Right - LP: Mecca and the Soul Brother), as well as the 1988 NWA release (If It Ain't Ruff It Ain't Right - LP: Straight Outta Compton). Your choice on the spelling and punctuation. ;)
-- Michael (Detroit via Portland)

 

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