PHOENIX -- The surprise is that this probably will surprise some people.
A favorite Sun returns
When it really shouldn't.
The only legit surprise in the desert Tuesday night was that Dirk Nowitzki, for probably the first time "in 40 nights" by Mike D'Antoni's count, scuffled with his shot and looked strangely mortal.
The rest of it?
None of it should floor you by now. Not Raja Bell coming back for Game 4 when he initially said he wouldn't play and not the Phoenix Suns resurrecting themselves from the latest round of premature presumptions that they're cooked.
"I guess we're not done yet," D'Antoni said with unmistakable satisfaction, soaking in a 106-86 rout that evened these Western Conference finals at 2-2.
This was some not-so-thinly veiled sarcasm from the Suns' coach, who sensed that few of his media questioners were hearing him in the hours after Dallas' Game 3 suffocation of the famed Phoenix running game. D'Antoni spent a good bit of his Memorial Day vowing that the Suns' will and fight, which even Steve Nash questioned after Sunday's 95-88 downer, would replenish quickly.
On cue, it did. They didn't achieve significant separation from the Dallas Mavericks until late in the third quarter, when they uncorked one of their trademark bursts to turn a two-point game into a rout, but the Suns ultimately justified D'Antoni's faith comfortably. Just like they had four or five times previously, during those seven-game marathons that ousted both teams from the league's Los Angeles wing.
"We're not going anywhere ... and they're going to have to beat us," D'Antoni said of the Mavericks. "If they shoot [42 percent from the floor], they're not beating us."
It's tough talk from a guy who, even with Bell playing on a partially torn calf, has the smallest and thinnest team still going. Yet this was another reminder that you can't call them the softest, no matter what you think of the Suns' defensive inadequacies or their dependency on tiny lineups, fast tempos and jump shots early in the shot clock.
You can be sure that the Mavericks, well aware of what Phoenix has overcome to get here, weren't surprised by Bell's booster-shot return or by his team's resistance despite playing from 2-1 down. Bell, remember, has been promising since the calf mysteriously collapsed on him after Game 1 that he wouldn't miss the rest of the series no matter how bleak the doctors' projections sounded. You sense that, as vital to the Suns' personality as Nash keeps saying Bell is, Bell still feels a debt to the guys who -- while he was serving a one-game suspension for clotheslining Kobe Bryant -- beat the Lakers in L.A. in that Game 6 without him.
"We couldn't afford to go down 1-3 and go back to Dallas," Bell said, having lobbied D'Antoni and the team's medical staff to let him come back and risk a more lasting tear at least one game before they wanted him to.
"We dodged a bullet in that first round with the Lakers and we didn't want to have to do that again."
So he gritted through almost 31 minutes and typified the hosts' evening by tweaking the calf on a runner in the lane early in the fourth quarter ... and then taking a charge from Josh Howard at the other end before hobbling off. Yet that was only the capper. Bell's presence gave the Suns an accomplished defender to send at Howard, freeing Shawn Marion to take back some of his Nowitzki responsibilities. Bell also allowed D'Antoni to use more of the three-guard sets he prefers, thereby creating more space and pace to help Leandro Barbosa get loose for a game-high 24 points from his customary game-changing reserve role.
Most of all, though, it was a stubborn bunch again with Bell back. Despite shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor at the half, and with Nowitzki off to a 1-for-7 start, Phoenix still led by only five points at intermission for the third successive game. Worse yet, that little lead -- again -- didn't look like it would last any longer than it did in Games 2 or 3. The Suns then closed the third quarter with 12 of the final 14 points -- "We were tremendously active defensively," Nash said -- and actually inflated that cushion to 18 while Nash was getting his usual rest at the start of the fourth.
That final period got so good that D'Antoni was finally able to give Kurt Thomas a five-minute test run. Nowitzki, meanwhile, departed for good with 6:54 to play and just 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting, after looking for weeks like the most dominant player of the postseason not named Dwyane Wade.
To prevent Dallas from improving to 6-2 on the road in these playoffs and seizing the chance to close the series out at home Thursday night, Phoenix attacked Nowitzki more aggressively than it ever has. Surprise was still the appropriate and understandable reaction when Nowitzki picked up two early fouls and lost his aggression. He wound up only making five trips to the free-throw line and never found a rhythm to counter the hard double-teams, active hands and home-team determination to crowd him every time he whirled within sight of the rim.
"I'm not crazy," D'Antoni said. "Dirk's really good, so he might have had an off night. Just like [Sunday] night, we didn't have an identity crisis, we just played bad.
"It does happen."
It happened before Phoenix ran out of comebacks.
It happened in the Suns' 100th game without Amare Stoudemire and might have cemented them as the NBA's resiliency champs. No matter what happens from here.
• Talk back to the Daily Dime gang
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Raja Bell, resting his balky calf in the game's final moments, seems to be amused by Steve Nash's remarks. Bell's surprise return helped spark the Suns to a 20-point win.
Many things went right for the Suns in Game 4. Raja Bell and his quick-healing calf provided an emotional lift. Leandro Barbosa and his inside-out game (24 points on 10-for-13 shooting, including four 3-pointers) provided a very material lift. And as a team they shot 54.4 percent from the floor.
But maybe the best thing that happened to the Suns is what didn't happen for Dirk Nowitzki.
The Mavericks' superstar, who looked nearly unstoppable Sunday, who Mike D'Antoni described as flat-out "unguardable" Monday afternoon, was way, way off his game on Tuesday night, managing just 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting.
The smooth, in-rhythm J was missing, and the trademark turnaround shot up, away and over his defender was AWOL, as well. "Bad night for him," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said matter-of-factly afterward. "He just couldn't get anything to fall."
The Suns had something to do with it by doubling up and sometimes running a third guy at him when he had the ball in and around the key.
"We just decided before the game we were going to shut him out," Steve Nash joked afterward. Nash gave his club credit for hassling Nowitzki -- "I think we were tremendously active defensively," he said -- but neither he nor Suns coach Mike D'Antoni had any illusions about the big guy coming up so small in Game 5.
"I'm not crazy," D'Antoni said. "This guy, Dirk's really good ... he'll be back."
-- Eric Neel at US Airways Center in Phoenix
I am a rabid Pistons fan who is very tired of Rasheed Wallace. When are people going to start calling him out for his steady stream of overpromise and underdeliver? The Pistons are clearly one Wallace heavy and will have to decide in the offseason if they can justify $10M/year for the other to play great defense while offering no offensive options ... hard to play 4-on-5 all the time at the offensive end of the court (aptly named for how this Flippin' offense has performed when it counts).
-- Mike (Ann Arbor)
Dwyane Wade just may end the postseason as the best player in the NBA. Yep, read it again if you like. He has been to the postseason every year since he entered the league. He has never been out in the first round. He has consistently upped his scoring average in postseason play (70 percent against the Pistons? Insane). He is one of the best defenders in the game, a talent that normally takes offensive-minded players at least 6-7 years to develop.
He takes and makes the big shot whenever necessary. He is single-handedly taking apart the "best team in the NBA." He made the sickest shot we have seen in the playoffs, maybe ever, on Monday night. If all of that evidence is not enough, he may become the first NBA champion of the New School of superstars. Pretty strong case.
Forty-seven free throws for Miami. Twenty-two for Detroit. Not a mention of the discrepancy in the ESPN report on the game. The officials were on a mission. Mission accomplished. It was sickening to watch. Rasheed can't speak truth and get away with it with the commish in the house. Whatever happened to fair play?
With the way Ben Wallace is shooting free throws/playing this series, it's no wonder why the Heat fans are chanting, "We want Ben" in that T-Mobile commercial.
When (if ever) will Flip put Tayshaun on D. Wade for a full 48? After four games of better than 60 percent shooting does he really think he has another option/answer?
Don't buy that casket just yet!
Raja Bell returned. Leandro Barbosa excelled. And the Suns evened the Western finals with the Mavericks, taking a 106-86 Game 4 win.
Mavs-Suns tied 2-2
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki argues with Bennett Salvatore about a call. Nowitzki's 11-point, 7-rebound stinker snapped a six-game streak of 25 points and 10 rebounds. Had he hit that mark Tuesday, he would have become one of five different players to have a streak of seven in a single postseason.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The elbow from Jason Terry that drew blood from just above Steve Nash's right eye in the first quarter of Game 3 was preliminarily reviewed Monday by the league office.
But things never progressed to the point of a full review, with NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson quickly deciding that the contact was unintentional and came in the normal course of play.
Phoenix didn't protest, either, after some initial whispers from the Suns' camp that they believed there was some intent behind the elbow.
Terry, of course, had to sit out Game 6 of the second round after punching former teammate Michael Finley in the groin area in the closing seconds of a Game 5 loss in San Antonio. Yet Terry strongly denied that he aimed his elbow at Nash -- "I don't even remember the play," he said -- and insists he doesn't feel a need to be more cautious with his aggression in spite of the post-suspension scrutiny he's facing.
"Not at all," Terry said. "I'm not a dirty player. The [Finley incident] was just an unfortunate situation and I apologized to Fin in Game 7."
-- Marc Stein at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix
Marc Stein: Since I have been covering the West playoffs from Round 1, this chat gives me a chance to pay tribute to the Miami Heat, who have emphatically answered all of my doubting -- hating is what they call it in Heat Country -- with some serious told-you-so ball in the East finals. Looks like I'll be writing plenty about them in the NBA Finals, but today is an opportunity for me (and my many friends in South Florida) to spend some quality time dissecting Riley's Revenge. I'm sure you're ready, so let's get to it.
Eddy (Miami): Hey Marc, South Florida wants to know, how would you prefer your crow?
Marc Stein: I prefer it in Miami. There are worse places to be when a prediction blows up in your face spectacularly and it doesn't even matter if I don't get a warm welcome.
Michael (N.J.): Marc, throughout the regular season a lot of people put down Shaq for not playing hard and believing he would not be able to turn it on during the playoffs. Now Shaq and the Heat look great, so is Shaq the exception to the rule that you don't have to play hard all year and just be ready for the playoffs is good enough? Thanks.
Marc Stein: The surprise is not Shaq's play. Shaq has been doing this for years, coasting through the regular season to make sure he had plenty left for the postseason. What I (and many others) doubted was Miami's ability to do playoff damage as a team without an established chemistry. With pretty much a whole new team aside from D-Wade and Haslem, they've clicked IN the playoffs. I didn't think that would happen. But I also thought the Pistons, even after the shaky Cleveland series, could capitalize on Miami's two biggest weaknesses -- perimeter D and a lack of perimeter shooting. They haven't.
Big M -- Miami fan in Detroit: Aside from the factors currently being mentioned as to why the Pistons are spiraling downward (issues with adjustments, player/coach venting in the media, shots not falling and an arrogance larger than Ben Wallace's Afro that is turning into the ugliest thing since the '04 Lakers)...what is your take as to why they are blowing this series?
Marc Stein: Offense, offense, offense. All this focus on the Detroit D is ridiculous to me. The Heat's biggest trouble spot, as exposed by Chicago in Round 1, is their perimeter D. You HAVE to play at a fast pace to wear Shaq down and take advantage of Miami's defensive frailties. Detroit's players, Chauncey especially, said repeatedly throughout the season that this team now had the capability to play any style. Where is their Suns imitation now?
Ever since the Cleveland series turned, Detroit has been playing safe, slow and scared. No ball movement. They don't attack. Miami has only gone nuts offensively one time, as well as D-Wade is playing. Defense ain't losing this for the Pistons.
Dwyane Wade has elevated his game in the Pistons' series. His shooting percentage is one measure.