Mavs get defensive, take 2-1 series lead over Suns

PHOENIX (AP) -- The first two games of the Western Conference
finals between Dallas and Phoenix were all about grace and style.

Game 3 was about toughness. And when emotions flared Sunday
night, the Mavericks proved grittier than the Suns.

Sparked by a first-half shoving match between Dallas guard Jason
Terry and Phoenix forward Tim Thomas, the Mavericks defeated
Phoenix 95-88 to take a 2-1 lead Sunday night.

Flexing their defensive muscle, the Mavericks limited the NBA's
most potent attack to a playoff-low in points. The Mavs overcame an
11-point first-half deficit and regained the home-court advantage
they lost in the series opener.

"We just battled for 48 minutes," Dallas coach Avery Johnson
said. "Teams are so evenly matched at this time of year. It comes
down to will. This team is very resilient."

The Mavericks are two victories away from the first NBA Finals
appearance in franchise history.

Dirk Nowitzki had 28 points and 17 rebounds for the Mavs, and
Josh Howard added 22 points and 12 rebounds.

Game 4 is Tuesday night in Phoenix.

The Suns hadn't lost consecutive games since they dropped three
in a row to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. They lost
their second straight game without Raja Bell, who is out with a
strained left calf, and fell to 1-5 without Bell in the regular
season and playoffs.

Throughout the playoffs, the Suns have performed best when they
play with emotion and energy. They lacked both in Game 3, and Suns
point guard Steve Nash took his teammates to task for it.

"We're out there with our shoulders slumped, and we're not
smiling," said Nash, who led the Suns with 21 points and seven
assists. "We're not fighting. We're not, you know, playing with
the necessary fire it takes to win. I think that's the most
disappointing thing is just the way we're going out there and

Tempers flared late in the first half when Howard was called for
a flagrant foul for hitting Thomas in the face as the Phoenix
forward drove to the basket. As Thomas walked to the foul line, he
and Terry exchanged shoves, and both players were assessed

Terry had been suspended for one game for throwing a punch in
the second round against San Antonio.

"My plan tonight was to come out extremely aggressive," Terry

Thomas made both free throws to give Phoenix a 52-42 lead with
2:05 left in the half. But that would be the high point for the
Suns. After the scuffle, the Mavericks scored the last five points
of the quarter to cut it to 52-47 at halftime.

Dallas kept rolling after intermission, outscoring the Suns 10-2
to take a 57-54 lead. The Mavericks cited their amped-up defense as
the turning point.

"We came out in the second half and really put together some
stops, which helped us get a lead and take momentum," Terry said.

Dallas has been known as an offensive powerhouse in recent
years, but Johnson has brought a greater respect for defense. It
showed Sunday night, when the Mavs consistently forced the Suns
into a half-court game.

"I know it's a cliche, but our defense really did beat our
offense," Nowitzki said.

The Mavericks outscored the Suns 15-2 in a seven-minute stretch
after the technicals were called. A three-pointer by Nash ended the
spurt, but Phoenix managed only 16 points in the third quarter, a
series low.

"We really resorted to a lot of one-on-one play," Phoenix
coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We kept battling, but we just didn't
get the thing done. We didn't play real smart."

Dallas took a 72-68 lead into the fourth quarter and appeared
ready to reclaim home-court advantage. But the Suns tied it at 72
on a jumper by Diaw and Shawn Marion's dunk on a missed lay-up by
Leandro Barbosa.

The Mavericks answered with an 11-2 run, capped by Keith Van
Horn's three-point play to take an 83-74 lead with 6:12 left.

With Dallas leading 90-84 and less than two minutes to play,
Nowitzki appeared to miss the rim as the shot clock expired. The
Mavericks grabbed the rebound and were allowed to keep possession
even as the Suns' bench exploded in protest.

The Suns were done. Even with a sellout crowd exhorting them,
they never threatened to stage a late rally like they did in Game

"I don't know if fatigue is a factor for us, but we're not
running," Nash said. "It was a little frustrating to see us not
get the extra effort tonight.

"I mean, we had a good first half in many respects, but in the
second half it's one thing not to play great; it's another thing
for everyone to get quiet and to kind of give in," Nash said.

Game notes
Bell could return to the lineup for Game 4 Tuesday
night, coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Raja feels better today than he
did yesterday," D'Antoni said before Game 3. "He's not ready to
go today. He'll continue to be day to day. I think it will be hard
but as soon as he's ready he's going to get out there." ... The
Suns fell to 2-6 in the conference finals (0-4 at home) over the
last two seasons. Phoenix has dropped one home game in each of the
first three rounds. ... Diaw has scored 20 or more points in three
straight games for the first time in his career. He's averaging
26.3 points per game in the series. ... The Mavericks are 23-0 when
Howard scores at least 20 points. He recorded his first
double-double of this postseason.