Suns blame themselves, not Mavs' strategy

Updated: May 16, 2005, 1:56 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- Things change quickly in the playoffs. Steve Nash actually got booed Sunday night in pregame warmups.

Then this reunion with his old pals from Dallas, and a city that once loved him so, only got stranger.

The locals obviously don't like losing to the mop-haired Mavs alumnus, but their new heroes were openly rooting for Nash in Game 4. The Mavericks were almost escorting him to the basket. They decided to let Nash score 50 points if he wanted so long as Nash didn't get the other Suns running away in track-meet mode.

Nash didn't get 50, but he did score 48. Dallas owner Mark Cuban was so moved that he grabbed Nash's hand after the final buzzer.

"Congratulating him on a great game," Cuban said afterward.

Yet the postgame message from several other Mavs tilted more toward thanks than congratulations, because they relished seeing Nash manage only five assists in a playoff-high 44 minutes. The hosts decided to keep Amare Stoudemire surrounded and let Nash go wherever he pleased, then credited that pick-your-poison strategy as the key to a 119-109 triumph that evened this series at 2-2.

"It's no secret," Mavs coach Avery Johnson admitted afterward, "that we don't want [Stoudemire] attempting a lot of shots."

It's a determination the Mavericks reached after losing two of the first three games to a team that's even thinner now than it was when the series started. They've sagely deduced that it is better to surrender 48 points and five assists to Nash than it is to let Nash amass 27 points and 17 assists, as he did in the Suns' Game 3 win here Friday night.

You can beat the Suns if Nash scores big. You can even beat the Suns occasionally when Nash dimes big. You have no chance if you allow both.

The Mavericks were thus almost grateful to see Nash skittering under, through and around them for 23 points alone in the third quarter, 16 in a row in one stretch. Especially because the unwavering attention they paid to Stoudemire helped limit the Suns' wrecking ball to three baskets -- compared to five personal fouls -- after Amare scored 40, 30 and 37 points in the first three games of the series.

The Mavs, though, would be wise not to celebrate for too long, because the freshly minted MVP is bound to find a way to get his teammates going in Wednesday's Game 5, after two days of mostly rest.

The Suns, in fact, scoffed at the idea that the strategy worked, since they wound up shooting 51.2 percent from the field while scoring a tidy 109 points. The problem, they insisted, was a flat first half. Their second flat first half in a week, incidentally.

As in Game 2, the vaunted Phoenix running game disappeared again for two quarters; Dallas rung up a 17-2 lead in fast-break points at halftime. "That's us," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "That's not what they did."

Nash, meanwhile, helped make the Mavericks' gambit a success by resisting the invitations to shoot for a half. As seen at times in his Dallas days, Nash over-penetrated in his zeal to find a passing target. He had five of his nine turnovers at the break, when D'Antoni told him to stop looking for the pass and be more selfish.

You saw the results in the next quarter. The Suns, though, suffered at the finish because they didn't get a strong performance from any of their other four starters. That left Phoenix waiting unfulfilled for that one game-turning spurt every opponent fears.

D'Antoni's theory?

"We had the gas," he said, dismissing the notion that his team is starting to show signs of wear with Joe Johnson unavailable. "We just didn't apply it in the first half.

"That's a young team," D'Antoni added, "thinking we have two games left at home."

The bet here is that the Coach of the Year and the MVP will come up with a counter between now and Game 5. If D'Antoni and Nash do the expected, Dallas will have to have everything it showed in Game 4 to avoid facing potential elimination in Game 6.

The Mavs hit almost everything on their checklist in this one. They kept Erick Dampier on the floor and kept him active, resulting in a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) from the under-fire center who has replaced Shawn Bradley as Shaquille O'Neal's favorite Mav target. They moved Dirk Nowitzki out of the post (as Nowitzki had hoped) and created more scoring opportunities for him out of motion sets, and Nowitzki capitalized with 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting. Thirty-six points from the bench didn't hurt, either, compared to the Suns' three ... and Josh Howard supplied 29 points and 10 boards to back up our recent Daily Dime contention that Howard is the second-best player in Mavsland.

Yet Nash had something left after unloading his Forty-Eight. A warning.

About "momentum swings," to use Nash's words.

"You win a game and you think you'll never lose again," Nash said. "You lose a game and you think you'll never win again. That's the playoffs."

Right. Things change fast.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics