PHOENIX -- Dirk Nowitzki has answered all the questions. He has hushed every doubt about his playoff toughness, his fourth-quarter clutchness and whether he's sufficiently ruthless to beat his best friend for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Mavs mere novelty no more
All of which means Nowitzki can finally and definitively respond to the question he hears more than any other.
Are these new Mavs really different than the old Mavs?
"I get that question all the time," Nowitzki says.
Pretty much everyone gets it and sees it. You couldn't deny the difference Saturday night, when his Dallas Mavericks established themselves as the nouveau favorites to win the NBA championship by taking us all on a one-night journey that parallels the last few years of their transformation.
To outlast the Suns, the league's unquestioned resiliency champs, and clinch the Western Conference finals with a 102-93 triumph, Dallas had to survive a microcosm of the whole Nowitzki/Mark Cuban era. It had to erase the Suns' 18-point lead ... and overcome its own inexplicable backslide into yesteryear's mentality of the meek.
Nowitzki's Mavs looked for a half like they believed that buddy Steve Nash's Suns were destined to force their third successive Game 7. They looked like they believed it more than the Suns did, actually. They shied away from contact. They refused to attack the basket. They tried 10 3-pointers and missed them all.
The Mavs played soft.
It was the sort of surrender from the perimeter that reminded you how Dallas was regarded for pretty much this whole century.
As a regular-season novelty act.
"We were settling for too many jump shots," said Mavs coach Avery Johnson, whose job it was to change that mentality, invalidate that reputation and take this franchise to the Finals for the first time in the club's 26-season history.
"Believe it or not, we think we're more of an inside-out team. We're not a jump-shooting team any more."
The Mavs suddenly remembered all that late in the first half and gradually started to show us what they've become, perhaps realizing that giving Phoenix new life wasn't the best idea.
So they went to the rim, hounded the Suns' shooters, dominated the boards and prevented the longest possible series by swamping Phoenix with their length and athleticism, none of which Dallas had when Nash and Nowitzki were still teammates.
An early fourth foul for Suns center Boris Diaw robbed Phoenix of its second-best playmaker and most effective Game 6 offensive force. It also ensured that Nash would continue to be guarded by Josh Howard, who unexpectedly emerged as the Mavs' primary Nash defender when Phoenix was up big in the first half.
Howard wound up harassing the two-time MVP to the finish with his long and active limbs, which helped to short-circuit the Suns' offense. By the fourth quarter, with no one going well, Phoenix scarcely resembled the team that averaged better than 120 points in four previous elimination games, all victories.
With Nowitzki finally shaking the effects of a clandestine bout of food poisoning to score 16 of his 24 points after halftime, Jason Terry recovering from a nightmare start (three fouls in less than three first-half minutes played) with a big second half and Jerry Stackhouse delivering a decisive 13-point salvo in the fourth, Dallas became the first team in this tournament to successfully wear Phoenix down.
Which was no empty achievement, given what the Suns -- playing just seven guys in their farewell, as they had throughout much of the playoffs -- had achieved in the first two rounds without Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas.
"We just couldn't hold it," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said of the early cushion. "[But] it's a mark of them, too."
Indeed. The comeback is another significant notch for the new Mavs, whose epic seven-game KO of the San Antonio Spurs wouldn't have seemed so historic if they hadn't been able to advance to the title round. But they did, avenging last spring's second-round loss to the Suns with a 48-minute illustration of the many ways they've evolved.
"We came into this season with the idea of winning the championship," Johnson said, hitting on a confidence level that represents one of the biggest changes in Big D.
"I like the way we've pieced together this team: It was definitely with the intention of trying to be flexible enough to play fast or slow. We feel we have different styles and we can play against teams with different styles."
Consider one long-time Mavericks observer convinced.
"I think they can win it all," Nash said, when asked to consider how hard it'll be for Miami to deal with this Nowitzki and these Mavs.
"I think they will win."
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AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Has a coach been hotter than Avery Johnson? He follows history's best 82-game career launch, his Coach of the Year award and a triumph over mentor Gregg Popovich with a trip to the NBA Finals.
Two days ago, I wrote that the Suns had to figure out a way to get DeSagana Diop off the floor in order to win Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
It speaks volumes about the Mavs' depth and flexibility that Phoenix won that battle and still lost the war.
Boris Diaw repeatedly torched Diop off the dribble en route to a 20-point first half, exiling the Dallas big man to the bench for most of the final 24 minutes.
Another starter, guard Devin Harris, was equally deficient, suffering from early foul trouble and spending the entire second half on the bench.
Instead, the Mavs flaunted their versatility by switching to an alignment they hadn't used all series. Dirk Nowitzki moved over to the center spot alongside three quick swingmen -- Jerry Stackhouse, Adrian Griffin and Josh Howard.
The result was a suffocating defensive blitz that saw Dallas hold the NBA's best offense to 21 points in the first 18 minutes of the second half, sending the Mavs to their first-ever Finals.
Now that they've made it, what Mavs lineup will we see against Miami?
Will it be the big lineup that pounded Memphis into submission in Round 1? The small-ball whirling dervishes that terrorized San Antonio in Round 2? Or the endless stream of wingmen that finally hounded Phoenix into submission in the conference finals?
Or how about (D) none of the above?
Mike D'Antoni was calmly and proudly answering questions about his beaten Suns when it hit him suddenly their plucky season was over.
Sensing that tears would soon be streaming down his cheeks, D'Antoni bolted off the interview stage.
But before that he announced to the Suns' skeptics that this group -- which won 54 games and two seven-game playoff marathons without Amare Stoudemire -- isn't going away.
"We're getting closer," D'Antoni said. "We played to June 3rd this year and last year was June 1st. We're inching closer.
"We went through a lot of stuff. We went through a lot of injuries and the margin of error wasn't great. . . . [But] the character issue is the thing that's going to get us over the top.
"That's why we're going to be a winner next year. That's why we're going to win a championship here pretty soon, because we've got some guys with hearts as big as Phoenix."
D'Antoni acknowledged several times throughout these playoffs that Suns' up-tempo style and preference for smaller lineups won't be accepted "until we win a championship."
But he has good reason to be optimistic, given what Phoenix was able to achieve without Stoudemire and, later, Kurt Thomas.
Although he'd love to sign a guard trusty enough for Steve Nash to cut his regular-season workload, D'Antoni believes that Stoudemire's expected return from two knee surgeries and the forecasted growth of Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa will lighten Nash's load significantly next season.
The Suns' coach/VP also knows that Phoenix likely won't have the financial flexibility to sign a quality backup for Nash, with Diaw and Barbosa eligible for contract extensions and late-season savior Tim Thomas desperately wanting to re-sign with the Suns.
Fact is, deciding whether there's room to invite Tim Thomas back -- with a frontcourt rotation that, when fully healthy, features Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Diaw and Kurt Thomas -- is a call that has to be made before adding to the backcourt.
"With someone like Amare coming back, that takes the pressure off [Nash]," D'Antoni said. "Now you don't have to do something every [possession] to create something.
"I'd like to find somebody [play] better than him [playing] tired," D'Antoni continued, noting that Nash shot better than 50 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the line in the playoffs even though he was forced to be a 40-minute man. "You can't find it."
Said Nash: "If anything [this playoff run] proved to me that we can win a championship playing this way.
"For us to be as close as we are, to be winning at halftime in every game with a six- or eight-man rotation . . . we were right there. And we also had a lot of injuries.
"You add those two things up, you can't tell me that we couldn't have won one or two of these close games in the series. So our feeling is we can really win a championship playing this way, definitely. If anything, this year went farther to convince me of that."
-- Marc Stein at US Airways Center in Phoenix
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
When Amare Stoudemire went down, few expected Phoenix to win the Pacific Division and 54 games and then go on to play 20 postseason games. That's why, when reality set in, the desert dwellers gave Shawn Marion and the Suns such a warm sendoff.
Thursday, June 8
A new, tougher Dirk Nowitzki has led Dallas to where its never been before: the NBA Finals.
Mavs move into Finals on Game 6 comeback
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
While two-time MVP Steve Nash's Finals dreams are deferred for another season, his close pal and former teammate Dirk Nowitzki is going on without him.
See Marc Stein's FAQ on the love-hate triangle of Nash, Nowitzki and Mark Cuban.
Dirk Nowitzki. Dwayne Wade.
They're the two best players in the conference finals and soon to be NBA Finals rivals.
Yet that's not all they have in common.
Just as Wade played ill in Miami's Game 6 clincher Friday night, Nowitzki did the same in Dallas' Game 6 victory Saturday at Phoenix.
Remember how the Mavs announced Friday that they were giving Nowitzki "a day off" after his 50-point masterpiece in Game 5?
The rest of the story: Nowitzki apparently got food poisoning from his postgame meal late Thursday night and was confined to his bed until Dallas flew to Phoenix on Friday afternoon.
Mavs coach Avery Johnson, after covering for his ailing star in the buildup to Dallas' 102-93 series-clinching victory, finally hinted at Nowitzki's distress in his postgame remarks, saying: "Dirk came back. [He] wasn't feeling particularly good, couldn't practice yesterday."
He came back with 24 points, 10 boards and three blocks in 44 minutes. It wasn't vintage Nowitzki, especially when set against the standards he's carrying now, but he personally outscored Phoenix -- with 14 points -- during the 33-12 run that erased the 60-45 lead held by the Suns with 6:34 to go in the third quarter.
"It's a tough loss for sure," said Suns guard Steve Nash. "You can taste it when you get close like this. You spend a lot of time convincing yourself that you're destined to do it. And when you don't, it's difficult.
"[But] we got beat by a good team, a very good team. And for me personally, to see Dirk be able to play for the championship, it's exciting. It hurts a lot that I won't be able to do it, but I really admire what he's been able to do. He deserves it and I'll be rooting for him."
Nash now ranks eighth all-time and leads active players with 86 career playoff games without an NBA Finals appearance. He hugged and congratulated just about every member of the Dallas contingent when it was over, including owner Mark Cuban -- who famously bowed out of the free-agent bidding for Nash in the summer of 2004 -- and naturally starting with Nowitzki.
"Obviously they're great friends and it hurt losing them," Nowitzki said of Nash and Michael Finley, who joined San Antonio last summer after Dallas waived him via the one-time amnesty clause.
"I wish, obviously, that both would still be here to enjoy this moment with me, but we made different decisions as an organization and we moved on."
-- Marc Stein, US Airways Center, Phoenix
Quote of the Day
-- Chris Ramsay
Pat Riley's not sleeping tonight.
The list of problems the Dallas Mavericks present to the Miami Heat is long -- they defend all over the floor, they can run, Nowitzki's unguardable, Howard can do most everything -- and it got longer with the second half Jason Terry put together in Game 6 against Phoenix.
Shaking off early foul trouble, Terry scored all 17 of his points after the break. Nowitzki and Howard did their thing as the Mavs made their way back from a double-digit deficit, but it was Terry who made the biggest difference.
He took and hit his shot from the outside, but more importantly for Dallas, and more disturbingly for Riley, he drove in and through traffic with terrific confidence.
Avery Johnson has emphasized control, D, and decision-making with Terry this season, trying to help him mature into a high-caliber all-around point, but there's always going to be a scorer's swagger at the heart of Terry's game, and if his rush to the finish Saturday night is any indication, he's going to be struttin' into the Finals.
And who's guarding him there?
The Glove? Not quick enough now.
Posey? Gonna have to handle Howard.
Williams? D's never been his long suit.
No, Terry's definitely on the list. Terry's definitely a problem.
And Riles is definitely not sleeping tonight.
-- Eric Neel
Steve Nash came up short of the Finals for the 10th time in 10 NBA seasons, but he shot 50.2 percent from the floor (146-for-291) and 91.2 percent from the line (83-for-91).
In the history of the NBA playoffs, only one other player who took as many field-goal attempts and free-throw attempts as Nash hit for 50 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the line.
That was Larry Bird in 1986: 51.7 percent from the floor, 92.7 percent from the line.
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