PHOENIX -- You have to be tough in the playoffs. You have to command respect, dig deep, play physical, show no mercy and give no ground. This is fundamental, this is common knowledge; every Willis, Rambis and Wallace who's ever been to the show will you tell you so.
But while the Suns and Mavericks have shown plenty of old school grit in the Western Conference finals -- Steve Nash shakes off a blood-drawing elbow to the temple in Game 3, Josh Howard lays some message-sending wood on Tim Thomas to prevent a layup -- each club is also stretching the script, expanding on what it is to be playoff tough.
Phoenix didn't run Sunday night, and that was a big part of why it lost Game 3. The Suns managed just four fast-break points, 82 shot attempts and 88 points overall (almost 20 less than their postseason average). They played good defense (holding Dallas to 41 percent field-goal shooting) and they rebounded fairly well, but they didn't run, and running is who they are. "We have to push it," says head coach Mike D'Antoni. "We're at our very best when we score within the first seven seconds of a possession; every second past that and we become less effective."
It's hard to say exactly why they were stagnant; after the game Nash called his teammates out, saying it was "frustrating not to see us really give the extra effort." The Mavs did a tremendous job of jamming the Suns' flow, no doubt, getting three and four guys back in transition and crowding the lanes between the circles, but D'Antoni thinks his players were hurting themselves just as much as Dallas' defenders were. "We felt the weight of the game on us," he said after practice Monday. "We were panicking a little bit, and when you panic, you close the court up and we can't do that." While Nash and Shawn Marion are playoff vets, many of Phoenix's key contributors -- Boris Diaw, Tim Thomas and James Jones -- have never played at this level. Guys get tight as the stakes rise, maybe try too hard, maybe play it too close to the vest. "We had guys trying to push it to the rim," D'Antoni said. But instead we need to be thinking about spreading the floor, getting to the corners and hitting quick."
He repeats this kind of thing like it's a mantra, like it's an article of faith. And that's precisely what it is. The Suns, down 1-2 in the series, and knowing they need to win a second game in Dallas to reach the Finals, must rededicate themselves to what they believe in. For them, tough isn't just laying a body on someone, valuing the basketball, or turning up the defensive intensity; it's also letting go, getting back to what Nash calls their "fun" game, trusting what D'Antoni describes as their "rah-rah" instincts. It's a courage-of-their-convictions thing for them now, even when their convictions seem to run counter to conventional playoff wisdom. To even up this series, and to put themselves in a position to win it, the Suns have to dial up the pace, generate more offensive opportunities, give up more control, risk more mistakes and seize more chances. In other words, they have to find the energy, and the fortitude, to be the Suns.
That's not so hard to do in a regular-season game, and it's proven doable in the early rounds of the playoffs (they were down 1-3 to the Lakers), but this is the Western Conference finals we're talking about, and these are the multi-talented, battle-tested, Spur-slaying Mavericks they're playing. To believe in what you believe in, to live by faith, to run even when they get back on you, to constantly push even when you're missing shots, in these circumstances, that's tough. D'Antoni is confident his club has what it takes. "These guys will be ready," he said Monday. "You'll see their heart. ... We won't fold. We'll make mistakes, but we won't fold."
For Dallas, it's less a matter of staying true to an identity or a style. The Mavs are where they are -- in the conference finals, past the defending champs, and up 2-1 on the Suns -- because of their flexibility. Heads-up against the Spurs, they pushed the pace, went small and forced San Antonio to abandon its proven grind-it approach. The Mavs averaged 115 points per game in their four wins in that series and featured three different leading scorers in those games. They had five players -- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Howard and Devin Harris -- average double figures against the Spurs, and got key minutes from 10 different guys. Against Phoenix they've also employed a deep squad (though in this series, to keep pace with the Suns' running game, DeSagana Diop has pretty much replaced Erick Dampier in the rotation), but the emphasis in their two wins in this series has been on defense, holding the Suns to 98 and 88 points in Games 2 and 3. They've slowed the tempo offensively -- "we really talk about, against this team, avoiding quick, bad shots," coach Avery Johnson said Monday before the Mavericks' practice -- and made a point of leaking out off their offensive sets to get guys running back early between the circles. "They seemed to always have two or three back on us," D'Antoni said after Game 3.
As a player, Johnson was part of a traditional inside-out, outside-in game in San Antonio, but as a coach in Dallas he's shown a great willingness to tool and tweak traditional sets and strategies. "I came in wanting to play a certain way," he said before the game Sunday. "But some of the things I wanted to do you just can't do." Part of that is an NBA game generally evolving away from the big man in the pivot, and part of that is a Dallas roster peppered with long, agile, slashing and shooting players, almost none of whom fit in familiar molds. Their points are scorers. Their biggest big man is also a long-range jump-shooting wiz. They have an X-Man (Howard) who fills the stat sheet while sliding between the two, three and four spots. They have a two-headed, shot-blocking backline beast in Diop and Dampier. And almost every one of them can run. And they can all play defense. They're like the Swiss Army Knife of NBA teams, a state-of-the-art multi-function special ops vehicle straight out of some Bond flick.
So playoff tough in Maverick land means tough to read, tough to pin down, tough to prepare for. But before any of that, it means tough enough, confident enough, to reinvent yourselves, series by series, sometimes night by night. We're used to coaches around playoff time talking "gut check" and "step up," and you get some of that from the defense-oriented Johnson, but more than anything what you hear from him is talk of the Mavs' improvising their way to success. "From game to game we just take a look at where we are," he said before Game 3. "You never necessarily figure them [the Suns] out. You've just got to have lineups out there on the court that give you your best opportunity."
If the heart of the Suns' approach is sticking to your philosophy come what may, the Mavs' success hinges on never getting too attached to any one way to play, or to win. One night it's Nowitzki going off, and the next night it's Terry or Howard. Today they blow by you like Showtime, and tomorrow they D you up like Detroit. "I think versatility is a key for us," Johnson said. "I think it's a key in our league now. There are so many different problems in the Western Conference in the way teams play; Memphis likes to play one way, San Antonio likes to play another, Phoenix plays their certain way. We can't insist on being any one thing."
It would have been easy, coming off the high of outrunning the Spurs, for the Mavs to think high-octane was the way to go from here on out; if they could handle the defending champs, surely they could handle the Suns, too. But that's not how they play it. Instead, the superstar Nowitzki talks about his complete faith in every other guy on the roster. Terry, a sparkplug scorer begins every interview talking defense. And Johnson asks the reporters circled around him Monday afternoon to please write something about players like Dampier being "man" enough to accept different roles in different situations.
Call it the toughness that comes with humility, call it a discretion-is-the-better-part-of-valor openness, to adjustment, to reconfiguration, to getting ready for what comes next.
"We haven't done anything yet," Johnson said.
Maybe not, but they've done a little bit of everything. And that ain't easy.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2.