Raja Bell's calf was in bad shape, but probably no more strained and iffy than the Phoenix Suns' playoff existence. If the calf could take the pressure on Tuesday night, then the Suns surely could as well.
If the past season and two rounds of playoffs have proven anything, it is that muscle tears and crutches rarely impede the Suns for very long. So Bell made a surprise return on Tuesday, and the Suns staged another (perhaps not-so-surprising) resurgence, routing the Dallas Mavericks, 106-86, to tie the Western Conference finals at 2-2.
The Suns handed the Mavericks their worst loss of the playoffs and avoided a potentially fatal 3-1 deficit in the series. Game 5 is Thursday in Dallas.
Bell, who could best be described as the Suns' spiritual leader, returned after a two-game absence, wearing a sleeve over his injured left calf and his usual steely gaze. He scored only a little -- nine points in 32 minutes -- but his mere presence seemed to lift the Suns' sagging shoulders.
"You know, half our team is a bunch of quiet guys," Suns guard Steve Nash said. "He gives us another guy who opens his mouth once in a while and gives us some toughness and bravado."
Everything seemed to change with Bell's return. The Suns made 54.4 percent of their field-goal attempts. They broke the 100-point mark for the first time since Game 1. The Suns still did not run at their usual gait, but they began finding seams to get to the rim. And they made their open shots.
Related or not, the opposite happened to Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki lost his offensive punch, scoring a season-low 11 points in 33 minutes. Dallas converted just 41.8 percent of its field-goal attempts. And the Mavericks, who were soaking up accolades for their newly acquired defensive prowess, lost their touch at that end, too.
"We just didn't have it," coach Avery Johnson said. "We were not there mentally or physically. Don't know what it is."
Johnson referred obliquely to "a lot of different things that were very disgraceful about the game." But when asked what he meant, he said, "Next question."
It seems probable that Johnson had the officiating in mind. Nowitzki, who made 3 of 13 shots, was physically harassed by the Suns all night, but attempted only five free throws.
"I took some tough shots, but still I had some turnarounds that I usually have to make," Nowitzki said.
A Dallas victory would have meant a virtual stranglehold on the series. Instead, the Suns just reminded everyone again how they made it here -- by overcoming every hurdle and defying every expectation.
Nash repeated his statistics from Game 3 -- 21 points, seven assists -- but this time it was sufficient. Leandro Barbosa led the Suns with 24 points off the bench. Boris Diaw had 20 points and nine rebounds.
The Suns did not look too depleted or too tired or too slow anymore.
"A lot of times it takes our back against the wall," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You never know psychologically what it means, but I know we're not tired, and I know these guys will run. And I know one day from now, two days from now, we're ready to roll."
Phoenix surged to an early double-digit lead, gave most of it back in the third quarter, but never let Dallas get closer than two points. The Suns closed the third period on a 12-2 run to take a 79-67 lead into the fourth. They opened the final quarter with a 3-point play -- Diaw's two-handed dunk on Nowitzki -- followed by a Barbosa 3-pointer, followed by another Diaw dunk. Phoenix led, 87-69. The Mavericks looked dazed.