The home-court advantage had already been pilfered, and the Dallas Mavericks' newfound edge dulled considerably, when they returned to the court Friday night in search of good omens. They got a David Hasselhoff sighting, then a much more significant Josh Howard appearance, and as omens go, that was good enough.
The Mavericks got 29 points from Howard, their hobbled swingman, and 30 points from Dirk Nowitzki, and pulled away in the final minutes for a 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns at the American Airlines Center. Dallas tied the Western Conference finals at 1-1 and heaved a sigh of relief.
"I'm feeling better about 1-1 than I would have about 0-2," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said, without the slightest trace of levity.
Nowitzki was at his best -- scoring six points in the final 1 minute 36 seconds -- and could have been forgiven for singing a tribute to Hasselhoff, who attended his first playoff game and watched from 11 rows above midcourt. (Hasselhoff, the actor-turned-singer, is big in Nowitzki's native Germany, and Nowitzki recently revealed that he hums a Hasselhoff tune when he shoots free throws.)
But the outcome Friday had a lot to do with how each team dealt with Game 1 injuries. While the Suns lost Raja Bell, their starting shooting guard, to a calf injury, the Mavericks got a quick recovery from Howard, who played on an injured left ankle.
Howard started the game and perhaps saved it. Dallas is undefeated when Howard scores at least 20 points, and he had 27 by the end of three quarters.
Howard repeatedly attacked the rim in the third, and the Suns kept putting him at the line. He scored 13 points in the period, preventing the Suns from turning a six-point lead into something more worrisome.
"That's something we'll have to address," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said.
More pressing, perhaps, for the Suns was the slower pace and the sudden disappearance of Steve Nash, their MVP point guard. Nash's only field goal of the second half came with 3.7 seconds left in the game. Crowded by double teams, he was unable to lead another late charge, as he had in Game 1.
"In hindsight, I would have maybe tried to be a little more aggressive," said Nash, who finished with 16 points and 11 assists. "But I kept feeling like I was making the right play. I was drawing two guys and passing to the open man. That's the type of player I am. I try to make the right play."
The Suns stole home-court advantage in Game 1 by mounting a furious rally in the final minutes. They could not replicate the performance. Tim Thomas hit a 3-pointer to cut the Dallas lead to 100-96 with less than a minute to play, but Thomas missed a pair of 3-pointers after that, and Dallas put the game away at the foul line.
Still, the Suns return home with a split. "Mission somewhat accomplished," Nash said.
The Suns had a tough time keeping the game at their preferred pace. They scored just 17 points in the first quarter, a playoff low. They are now 1-5 in the playoffs when failing to score 100 points.
Johnson was encouraged, if not thrilled, with his team's improved defense, contrasting it to a Game 1 in which the Mavericks hardly played any.
"The first game they were playing against themselves. It was five Suns out there on the court and no Mavericks," Johnson said. And in Game 2? "We had some Mavericks in most of the plays tonight."