PHOENIX -- Doesn't matter if Raja Bell was sitting in street clothes next to Amare Stoudemire. Doesn't matter if the tiny home team was down to a skeletal seven-man rotation.
Suns run into Mavs' brick wall
Doesn't matter if the ball missed the rim completely on that late Dirk Nowitzki heave.
You hold the Phoenix Suns under 90 points, on their floor, and you've achieved something.
One questionable call doesn't change that.
The Suns had justification to contest the non-call on Nowitzki's triple with 1:20 to go. If the ball grazed no iron, as initial replays suggested, it should have been a shot-clock violation. It thus should have stayed a two-possession game, with Phoenix reclaiming possession.
Yet all that obscures the newsiest development:
Phoenix -- Phoenix! -- had a mere 84 points at that point.
With the Dallas Mavericks contesting everything.
It's hard to picture how the Suns were going to erase a six-point deficit in 80 seconds with the Mavericks playing fantasy basketball, or at least the defense of Avery Johnson's dreams. To claim this 95-88 road score and a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals, Dallas didn't merely slow its short-handed hosts.
The Mavs didn't just harass the Suns into a 36-point second half.
They demoralized them.
"We're out there with our shoulders slumped," Steve Nash admitted. "We're not smiling."
They're not running anymore, either, and they can't claim Bell's absence is the problem there.
The Suns' big issue now is the Mavericks' perpetually panned defense, which gave Johnson two quarters of activity in this Game 3 that rose to the level of textbook playoff D.
That's true even if you're working from the nit-picky Johnson's textbook.
The Mavs intercepted at least three lob passes. They deflected countless entry passes. They poked the ball loose on the dribble and generally made everything in the second half hard, most memorably when Tim Thomas tried (and failed) to get the ball to Nash out by the 3-point line after Phoenix had sliced an 88-79 deficit to four.
The Mavs gradually melted away the Suns' will to run by answering Johnson's loud call after Game 1 for "transition defense ... transition defense ... transition defense."
Pretty much every time Phoenix looked downcourt, Dallas bodies were back and waiting. The Suns wound up totaling just four fast-break points, after 21 in Game 2 and 32 in Game 1.
Worse yet, Phoenix didn't come up with a single steal, which hasn't happened to the Suns in a playoff game since 1976.
The Mavs' commitment to hustle back, meanwhile, spread through the group so thoroughly that Johnson didn't feel the need to play center DeSagana Diop -- the defensive anchor he was so desperate to get on the floor in Game 2 -- more than two minutes in the final quarter.
I'd say his guys are hearing the message.
Not that the coach is convinced. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Jason Terry hoisted a jumper two seconds into the shot clock. Perhaps to remind those guys how serious he is about this stuff, about resisting the urge to run with the Suns, Johnson summoned Terry to the bench literally five seconds later.
"We took our time," Dirk Nowitzki said.
"They did better at playing small than we did," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who can't offer a higher compliment.
"In the first quarter, we had one assist. That's because we weren't running and weren't moving the basketball. We got into a half-court mentality. And I don't know if it's because the level of the game was up or we just kind of took the foot off the accelerater or if [we were] mentally tired.
"I don't know the reason, but I know the answer. We can't do it. We've got to find the resilience and the effort to do it."
The Suns' only alternative is hoping that this never-before-seen Dallas defensive resolve can't stay this resolute.
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Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
The Mavs were burned in the paint for most of the first half, but then Josh Howard instituted the no-layup rule late in the second quarter. After Tim Thomas made his free throws to give Phoenix a 52-42 lead, the Suns scored only 36 points the rest of the game.
VICTORIA, British Columbia -- When happenstance put me in Steve Nash's hometown on the night of one his team's biggest games of the season, I had a chance to test just how much the game has taken off north of the border.
I'm sorry to report it's still stuck in the ice.
My evening started with the discovery that the game wasn't even available on any of the cable channels in my hotel room. Bad sign, but not a major problem, I thought. Thanks to the almighty sports bar, it should be easy enough to find a local watering hole showing the game.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nash had some serious competition even in his hometown. The first place I contacted was adamant that its big screen TV would be showing 12 toothless men chasing a small disk around a rink (Buffalo and Carolina were meeting in Game 5 of the NHL's Eastern Conference finals), hometown hero be damned.
After a few more fruitless calls, I found a bar that gave me an even more incredulous response -- "No, we're just watching hockey and NASCAR here."
Um ... did he say NASCAR? Are they telling me that Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth have more street cred north of the border than the two-time MVP?
As gametime approached and I grew increasingly frantic, I finally located a bar that was willing to change one of its five televisions -- all of which were showing hockey -- to the Mavs-Suns game.
Of course, they put me in front of the pitiful small-screen TV in the corner that nobody was watching, but by this point I would have watched the game on a cell phone.
Still, I was alone amidst a hockey crowd. As I quietly watched the Mavs' defense suffocate Phoenix, a large group behind me cheered wildly as the Hurricanes and Sabres went to overtime. Adding insult to injury, when the hockey game ended, the patrons didn't even stick around to see how their local long-haired hero would fare on the hardwood.
There were a few bright spots -- I heard some sporadic cheering for Nash during hockey commercials, for instance, and one guy offered me an impassioned defense of the Vancouver Grizzlies' fan support.
But in the end, the lesson from my evening was clear. Once you cross the 49th parallel, no sport can go head-to-head with the almighty puck, no matter what kind of local connection it has.
-- John Hollinger
Avery Johnson loves to talk about "hard fouls." If it were up to him, you'd see an HF column in the box score.
"I just don't like layups." Johnson told me earlier this season. "I don't like uncontested layups and I don't like three-point plays."
That means Johnson had to like the play that helped launch the Mavericks' Game 3 turnaround: Josh Howard's flagrant foul with 2:05 to play in the first half.
The Mavs aren't exactly known for hard fouls, no matter how much Johnson brings them up, but Howard nailed Tim Thomas on a drive with the Suns up 50-42. Thomas sank the resultant free throws for a 10-point lead, but the Mavs responded to the tension by scoring the final five points in the half.
"The turning point," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said of Dallas slicing its deficit to 52-47 by halftime.
I wouldn't say Howard's hit, in itself, turned Phoenix timid or anything, but it certainly got Howard going. He had 16 of his 22 points in the second half.
The Mavs' energetic swingman was so good in Game 2, with 29 points on a twisted ankle, that the Suns were moved to take Shawn Marion off Dirk Nowitzki and put him on Howard ... just like San Antonio did in the previous series by switching Bruce Bowen off Nowitzki and onto Howard.
The difference? Howard rarely found his rhythm against the Spurs after Game 2, with Bowen guarding him for parts of the next five games. But Howard didn't let that happen against Phoenix in Game 3 after Marion hounded him into a 2-for-9 first half, and he finished with 22 points and 12 boards.
Surely by now you've heard how the Mavs fare when Howard gets to the 20-point plateau. In case you haven't: Dallas is 23-0 this season -- 4-0 in the playoffs -- when it happens.
"We really missed him in Game 1," teammate Dirk Nowitzki said. "He's a big key why we're up 2-1."
-- Marc Stein at US Airways Center in Phoenix
The West is soft? Dallas used a well-timed flagrant foul and hard-nosed defense to slow down the Suns in Game 3, winning 95-88.
Mavs take 2-1 lead in Phoenix
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Dallas' Jason Terry, who should know after his recent suspension that the cameras see all, drew blood with an elbow to Steve Nash's temple in the first quarter. Nash retaliated with a shove to the jaw, then went to the sidelines to stop the bleeding. Now to see how the NBA interprets the exchange.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Dallas defenders DeSagana Diop and Dirk Nowitzki must have looked nine feet tall all night to the Suns, who had their smallest offensive output of the playoffs: 88 points.
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
It's not that Shawn Marion had a bad night; 18 boards and 10 points aren't bad.
It's just that, with Raja Bell and Kurt Thomas and Amare Stoudemire out, Marion didn't quite have the night the Suns needed him to have in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
As a group the Phoenix O wasn't flowing Sunday night -- "We didn't run, and we have to run. There's no way we're going to beat this team pounding on them," head coach Mike D'Antoni said afterward -- but Marion seemed especially out of synch.
He missed open 3s, short-armed an airball on a close jumper, fumbled a pass from Steve Nash he typically converts for two, and so on.
Maybe it was just one of those nights.
Maybe it was the job the Dallas defense did on him: "Everyone was guarding me tonight -- Howard, Stackhouse, Dirk, Van Horn," he said later.
Maybe it was the job he was doing on defense, tracking Nowitzki and Josh Howard like a bloodhound, running, and busting through screens, all over the half court.
Whatever it was, it didn't appear to faze him in the postgame locker room. In many ways, Marion's the heart and soul of this club -- the stalwart defender, the blue-collar worker on the glass, and the energetic finisher on the break. In the moments after Game 3 he seemed to know, no matter how frustrated he might have been, that the only thing to do was look ahead, giving no quarter.
"We know what we need to do," he said simply, confidently, fielding question after question about this "not quite good enough" game, and already imagining, already believing in the prospect of a great one come Tuesday.
-- Eric Neel in Phoenix
An excerpt from the Scouts Inc. breakdown and preview of Game 4 in the East finals:
The Pistons scored only 83 points in Game 3 and this will not be enough for them to win this series.
They need a more balanced and diversified offense to beat the Heat. They need three or four players to have a good game at the same time. They cannot have such a disparity with their backcourt scoring 51 points and the frontcourt 16. This is not how they were built to win championships.
The Pistons got crushed in Game 3 in the paint, with Miami scoring 50 points to their 16.
One of the ways to improve would be to go to Rasheed Wallace from the beginning of Game 4. They need to get him deep post-ups and touches so that they can develop some sort of inside game.
Chauncey Billups must be in attack mode offensively from the start of Game 4. The Heat do not have anyone to match him and he needs to abuse Jason Williams, attack Gary Payton and get all of his teammates involved early in the game.
Billups is a very smart player and he knows that the stat sheet did not lie after Game 3 -- 16 team turnovers and just 11 assists get you beat.
Chauncey needs to make sure the Pistons do not settle for jumpers but find ways to get to the basket.