Nash, Nowitzki square off with spot in finals on line
No biggie. They'll be seeing each other plenty over the next week or so.
Nash's Phoenix Suns and Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks are squaring off in the playoffs for the second straight year and this time it's the Western Conference finals, making the higher stakes more of a focus than the friends-turned-foes angle.
Still, it's hard to ignore the inevitable fact that one of these star players will emerge from this series vying for his first NBA title.
"I think as long as Dirk's there, it will probably be somewhat of a story line just because of our friendship and our history together," Nash said Tuesday. "But the story is losing a lot of its luster. I hope."
OK, then, how about the new hot topic: Points, points and more points.
While Detroit and Miami slug it out in the Eastern Conference, everyone's expecting this series to be heavy on offense, even if both clubs had only one day off after Game 7s.
"We just need to outscore them," Phoenix's Shawn Marion said.
The irony for the Mavericks is that they won 60 games and became the home team in the conference finals -- for the first time in their 26-year history -- because they paid more attention to defense.
Mavs coach Avery Johnson got his team to allow the fewest points in their history, good for seventh-best in the league. Yet they also still had Nowitzki and enough of previous coach Don Nelson's fingerprints to also rank ninth in scoring. No other team was in the top 10 in both categories.
In the playoffs, however, the Mavericks have relied mostly on their offense.
They broke 100 points in all four of their wins against the San Antonio Spurs and failed to do so in all of their losses. It's also worth noting that Dallas already has pulled off the quirky statistical feat of beating the NBA's two stingiest defenses from the regular season: Memphis (88.5) and San Antonio (88.8).
The Suns, by the way, gave up the third-most points, 102.8.
"We can play slow, we can play fast, medium," Johnson said. "Some teams only play one way. Fortunately for us, because of our depth, there are various ways we can play and we've had to do that."
After working hard to crack 100 points against the Spurs, the Mavs might decide to try just as hard to score only around 100 against the Suns.
"It's going to be a completely different game plan and a different mind-set," Nowitzki said. "I think a lot of our defense starts with how we play offense. You can't run-and-gun with them. ... We still want to run if the chance is there, but we've got to play the game at our pace."
Last year, the Suns ousted the Mavs from the second round in six games. Phoenix rode the combination of league MVP Nash and big man Amare Stoudemire into the conference finals, losing to San Antonio.
While Nash is again the MVP, injuries have limited Stoudemire to cheering from the bench. The Suns have needed two seven-game series to get this far and there's reason to wonder how much Nash has left.
His 29 points Monday night in Phoenix's 127-107 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers was 12 more than he'd scored since the opener. He also had the bonus of a three-day layoff.
That won't exist this series as there's a game every other day.
"This team has overcome a lot," said coach Mike D'Antoni, referring to a season so filled with change that Nash, Marion and Leandro Barbosa are the only holdovers from last year's Dallas series. "Everybody doubted them along the way. I think it's a little bit more of a special feeling among themselves just because of what they've overcome."
Dallas' biggest challenge may be unwinding from a second-round series against San Antonio that already has sparked debate over where it ranks among the greatest playoff battles in league history.
Six of the seven games went down to the wire, two of them in overtime, including Game 7. The Mavericks nearly blew a 3-1 series lead and a 20-point lead in the finale, but held tough for a 119-111 victory that eliminated the state rival that's been in their way like an older brother.
Johnson is trying to keep his players from feeling they've accomplished more than they actually have. After practice Tuesday, veteran Jerry Stackhouse admitted he still hadn't let go of the thrill of beating San Antonio.
"It's coming, it's coming," he said, smiling wide. "It hadn't come up yet. We're still excited about the game and what we were able to accomplish.
"When we came in today and started locking in on the Suns, Avery didn't really say [anything] other than it was a great victory for the team and for everybody. All our focus today was on Phoenix."
Phoenix will use Marion and lots of help to try containing Nowitzki, an inside-outside threat who is averaging 28.6 points per game in the playoffs, easily the most among players still competing.
Marion's game plan?
"Make it hard for him. Make him take tough shots. Keep him from getting easy baskets," he said. "It's easier said than done. ... He can't really take me off the dribble. I've just to make it hard for him. His fadeaways, I can't block those. But I can contest them and make it hard for him."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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