Tue, May 30, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Suns may be burning out

CONFERENCE FINALS Sparked by a first-half shoving match between Dallas guard Jason Terry and Phoenix forward Tim Thomas, the Mavericks defeated the tired Suns

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PHOENIX, ARIZONA

Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson is fond of describing the Phoenix Suns as a mysterious puzzle box that no mere mortal can solve. They are, presumably, too unconventional, too quick, too loose.

That image is changing rapidly, by the force of the Dallas Mavericks' will and by the gravity of the Suns' own withering posture. By Sunday night, the Suns were instead too small, too undisciplined and too beaten up to contend with the Mavericks.

Dallas held off the Suns for a 95-88 victory at US Airways Center, taking a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals and regaining the home-court advantage they lost in Game 1. Game 4 will be played here Tuesday.

The Mavericks were again carried by Dirk Nowitzki (28 points) and Josh Howard (22 points), but they sealed the victory with their length and their strength. On what proved to be a decisive possession, the Mavericks pulled down four offensive rebounds and extended their lead to 92-84 with 33.1 seconds left.

"I think we don't get enough credit for being the team that hustles," said Johnson. "Teams are so evenly matched during this time in the playoffs, it really comes down to will."

Dallas showed plenty. Phoenix, missing the feistiness of the injured guard Raja Bell, showed too little. The Suns let an 11-point lead dwindle to fivein the final minutes of the first half, then spent most of the second half playing from behind.

Steve Nash was resurgent (21 points), and Leandro Barbosa broke his slump with 17 points, but the Suns offense mostly sputtered. They finished with postseason lows in both points and assists (13) and fell to 1-6 in the playoffs when failing to score 100 points.

It looked nothing like the happy-go-lucky, everyone-touches-the-ball offense that has carried the Suns for two years.

"I thought especially in the second half, we got caught too many times going one-on-one, and even when we did go one-on-one, not looking to pass when we draw another defender," Nash said. "We're not as good a team when we play that way. We have to move the ball."

Phoenix is now 0-2 without Raja Bell, who tore a calf muscle in Game 1. Bell's absence figured to hurt the Suns' defense and their depth, but Nash said there is much more missing.

"Personality," he said. "I just think we're out there with our shoulders slumped, and we're not smiling, we're not fighting, we're not playing with the necessary fire it takes to win. That's the most disappointing thing, is just the way we're going out there and playing."

Credit Dallas for stripping it all away. Nowitzki pulled down 17 rebounds and Howard 12, and the Mavericks controlled nearly every loose ball down the stretch. The Suns tied a franchise playoff record with zero steals.

After trailing by as many as 11 points, the Mavericks outscored the Suns 17-2 from the second to third quarters, taking a 59-54 lead.

The Suns' first 13 possessions of the second half ended with six turnovers and five misses in seven attempts.

Nash kept the Suns alive, hitting a 3-pointer and a pair of layups, and Barbosa -- who replaced Bell -- hit a 3-pointer that briefly restored the Phoenix lead, 64-63. The Suns tied the game once more, at 72-72, but the Mavericks responded with a 10-2 run.

A minor controversy marred the final 80 seconds and perhaps killed any chance the Suns had to save the night. Dallas led 90-84 with 1:10 to play when Nowitzki put up a deep and desperate 3-pointer with the shot clock running down. The shot went wide and off the backboard, but the referees did not stop play, and Jerry Stackhouse grabbed the rebound for Dallas. Television replays showed the shot did not catch the rim.

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