DALLAS -- For a serial self-loather like Dirk Nowitzki, whose typical response to a bad game is locking himself in the gym until the next one, maybe this was actually the best possible scenario.
Dirk rolls two quarters, Suns
Maybe he couldn't have been as killer as he was Thursday night if Nowitzki's Tuesday night wasn't so dreadful.
Maybe he had to be that bad to be this good.
It certainly seems as though the worst game of Nowitzki's playoff life drove him to keep driving and hoisting and sneering until he had a stat line to outstrip even his domination of Game 7 in San Antonio some 10 days back.
Twenty-two points and eight boards alone in a takeover fourth quarter to seal a 117-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns and give the Dallas Mavericks two cracks at the one victory they need to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time.
Move over, 37 and 15.
"He was tremendous," said Suns guard Steve Nash, who obviously knows a bit about Nowitzki's zones.
Atrocious would have been a more fitting adjective to describe Nowitzki's Game 4 and even Dirk would agree. If that sounds a bit harsh, you're forgetting the standards he's been shouldering ever since he rumbled for 37 points and 15 boards in the deciding game of Dallas' breakthrough series with the Spurs.
That's not to say Phoenix didn't play a role in Nowitzki's 3-for-13 shooting and meager total of 11 points. The Suns indeed contested his shots with aggression and activity that looked somewhat Spurs-like.
But Nowitzki, being Nowitzki, blamed Nowitzki more than anything. He picked up two quick fouls in that one, played tentatively in the second quarter trying to avoid a third foul and never found the rhythm he needed to loosen up the Suns' best defense.
First Nowitzki had to endure a blistering film session Wednesday in which Mavs coach Avery Johnson loudly dissected Nowitzki's shot selection and reluctance to attack the rim. "He let me have it," Nowitzki confessed. Then he went back to the practice court at night for his usual round of extra shooting and self-examination with longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner, believing that only extra doses of preparation could spare him from a repeat performance.
Then . . .
Nowitzki drove to the hoop on his first two catches in Thursday's Game 5 . . . and didn't abandon the plan after missing both layups.
"I just wanted to be aggressive no matter what happens," he said.
That mindset -- and the free throws coming with it -- helped Nowitzki when he missed several routine jumpers through the first three quarters. Like Nash, who couldn't believe his own bad bounces on quality opportunities on a 5-for-17 night, Nowitzki was a mere 6-for-16 from the field before his game-turning eruption.
It was a nervy wait for the Mavs until Nowitzki got hot. They blew their first double-digit lead of the series (32-18) in the first half and fell behind, 77-70, in the third when Nowitzki's man, Tim Thomas, drilled three straight uncontested 3-pointers, forcing Dallas to abandon its pick-and-roll focus on Nash's drives. Thomas also mixed in a dunk in the spree, which became a three-point play when Nowitzki fouled him, accounting for 12 of Thomas' 26 points.
Nowitzki's nasty exchange with Thomas, when Thomas blew a taunting kiss at him, was nothing. Yet there was something else for the Mavericks to overcome, with Dan Crawford heading Thursday's ref crew. Every Mav is well aware of this oft-recited Mark Cuban stat: Dallas was 0-9 in the Cuban era in playoff games refereed by Crawford, by Cuban's count, before this triumph.
"When we were down seven, I just saw the whole season swimming away," Nowitzki said, repeating a sentiment he trotted out for the first time when the Spurs erased a 20-point deficit in Game 7.
That time, Nowitzki forced overtime in the closing seconds with an unforgettable drive . . . and a foul by Manu Ginobili. This time, Nowitzki capitalized on some help from the Suns -- Marion's foul trouble and technical fouls assessed to Raja Bell and coach Mike D'Antoni -- with a run of 15 points in a row, eight of them at the line.
He was so good that Johnson had to lift the 3-point restrictions he's imposed on Nowitzki all season, with No. 41 missing only one of six attempts from long distance and hitting 50 with a rainbow triple with 1:44 to play.
Nowitzki was so scalding by night's end that only one guy could stop him.
That would be the press-room attendant who inexplicably shooed him off the dais in mid-answer.
"I think everybody just realized we don't want this to be over yet," Nowitzki said of his Mavs, who thus avoided going to Phoenix down 3-2.
Now to see if the adversity-loving Suns, like Nowitzki, can respond as we expect them to. Now to see if the Suns can do what they do by getting to a third successive Game 7.
D'Antoni's challenge is convincing his players that a 3-2 deficit is their perfect scenario, since Phoenix is 4-0 in elimination games this postseason.
• Talk back to the Daily Dime gang
Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki sinks one of his five 3-pointers, shaking off his worst game in months by scoring 50 points -- including 15 straight in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a rout. Nowitzki single-handedly outscored Phoenix 22-20 in the fourth quarter.
After a dispiriting loss, Phoenix has a great many items on its to-do list for Saturday's Game 6. For starters, the Suns might want to get a hand up on that Nowitzki guy. They also need to send out a search party for Steve Nash,'s jump shot and figure out whether Raja Bell has any good minutes left in his sore calf.
Right up there on the list, however, should be figuring out a way to get DeSagana Diop off the court. Dallas's 7-foot center played 30 minutes on Thursday and made his impact felt at both ends. Defensively, his ability to patrol the paint helped cut off Suns' drives on numerous occasions, including a spectacular block of a Nash layup attempt, and he was still able to rotate back to Boris Diaw and keep him reasonably in check.
Offensively, Phoenix was helpless against his size on the glass, as Diop finished with five offensive rebounds and contributed to many others. Thanks in part to Diop, Dallas finished with 16 offensive boards on the night, a key reason it won big despite similar shooting percentages between the two teams.
On paper, Diop shouldn't be able to do this. These are the run-and-gun, lightning-fast Suns, and you're not supposed to be able to play one 7-footer against them -- much less two, like Dallas is. Even Mavs coach Avery Johnson bought into the idea, giving Diop a DNP in Game 1 while the Mavs surrendered 121 points.
Fortunately for the Mavs, Johnson corrected that error in Game 2, playing Diop 31 minutes in Dallas's 105-98 win, and since then the Suns' offense has found much less room to operate. Even the one Phoenix win since, Tuesday's 106-86 rout in Game 4, came about more because Dallas couldn't score than anything spectacular the Suns did offensively. That's why he's the coach of the year -- this is the second straight round he made a major adjustment in Game 2 that completely turned the series around, coming on the heels of his brilliant Devin Harris maneuver against San Antonio.
So now it's time for the previous season's coach of the year, Mike D'Antoni, to figure out an adjustment. "They're not going to go away from it until we solve that," he noted earlier in the week, and the Suns still haven't solved it.
The answer might have to come more with scheme than with personnel. The Suns are down to a seven-man rotation that might be six by Saturday if Bell can't play any better, so it's not like D'Antoni can make radical changes to his lineup (unless, that is, he's willing to pull Kurt Thomas out of the freezer in an elimination game, and even then it's questionable what Crazy Eyes brings to the table that Diaw doesn't).
What D'Antoni must do then, is figure out how to make Diop such a defensive liability that the Mavs have no choice but to remove him. He'll have to run plays that get Diop rotating as much as possible, preferably over great distances, and encourage his players to take advantage of him in transition.
So while most eyes will be on Nowitzki in Game 6, and with good reason, also keep a close watch on Diop. If Phoenix can force him off the court early by out-quicking the Dallas big man, then it has a great shot at a rubber match. If not, it's sayonara Suns, and the Mavs will be en route to their first-ever Finals.
-- John Hollinger
The Pistons were desperate and sometimes desperate teams actually listen to their coach. Flip Saunders constantly has emphasized to his team the importance of ball movement. In Game 5, when the Heat took away options one and two, the Pistons did a better job of reversing the ball and creating offense through ball movement.
The Pistons found a recipe for success in Game 5, and they need to continue it the rest of the series. Chauncey Billups took charge of the team and was the distributor with 10 assists. He got Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince the ball while selectively taking Jason Williams off the dribble whenever he wanted. Hamilton was aggressive from the beginning of the game, running off screens for jumpers and tight curls to the rim. In addition, Hamilton drove the ball relentlessly to the rim in transition.
Prince is not the primary option in any of the Pistons' sets, yet he has been a difficult guard for the Heat in the Pistons' two wins. He might be the key to the Pistons having a chance to win this series. In the Pistons' two wins he has averaged 26.5 points on 57 percent shooting, while in their three losses Prince has scored only 11.3 points on 33 percent shooting. The Pistons need to incorporate Prince into their offensive flow in Game 6.
Fearing Game 5, and perhaps the season, was slipping away, Dirk Nowitzki seized control. He outscored the entire Suns team 22-20 in the fourth quarter in Dallas' 117-101 win.
Mavs Lead Suns, 3-2
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Tim Thomas had the hot hand, sinking 6-of-8 3-pointers en route to 26 points. But his 25-foot, 3-point jumper with 3:27 left in the third, giving the Suns a 77-70 lead, was the last hoop of the night for the exiled Bull.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Adrenalin is a wonderful elixir, but it's a short-term solution as Raja Bell and the Suns found out.
Bell, after helping Phoenix win big by contributing 31 highly efficient (and inspirational) minutes despite a partially torn left calf Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, logged 29 wholly ineffective minutes Thursday in Dallas. The final gong for Bell came early in the fourth quarter, when Josh Howard blew by Bell, the Suns' defensive stopper, as if he were standing still. Because he was.
Howard finished with a dunk. Ding.
Less than a minute later, Howard posted up Bell and drew both a foul and a technical. Dong.
Suns coach Mike D'Antoni mercifully ended Bell's night in the ensuing timeout with 9:08 left and the outcome very much up for grabs. Bell would've yanked himself if D'Antoni hadn't.
"They made a commitment to drive at me and my feet weren't moving well," Bell said.
"Mike saw it before I could say anything. I knew it would be tougher tonight because I wasn't on the same emotional high."
It's no coincidence that Leandro Barbosa struggled as well. Bell's return in Game 4 resulted in a 10-for-13 shooting night for Barbosa, but with Bell not being a perimeter threat (1-for-5 overall, 1-for-4 on 3s, for three points), Barbosa found his driving lanes reduced to the width of a double-yellow line. Had it not been for three desperation off-the-dribble jumpers falling -- not Barbosa's strength -- his line would've looked far worse than 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting.
"It's getting better," Bell said. "It's just not coming along as fast as I'd like."
Can playing at home on Saturday provide another jolt of adrenalin? Bell certainly hopes so. Barbosa, too.
-- Ric Bucher at the American Airlines Center in Dallas
We all know draft prognostication isn't an exact science.
Exhibit A: Tayshaun Prince, who scored 29 points in an elimination game against the Heat on Wednesday.
Prior to the 2002 NBA Draft, NBA GMs and scouts had Prince ranked as a bubble first-rounder despite a stellar career at Kentucky.
Today, the Warriors would love to unload Dunleavy while Prince has become the Pistons' go-to guy.
Prince was longer, more athletic and a better defender. Dunleavy was considered a better shooter and passer but really was boosted by the fact that his dad was an NBA head coach.
In retrospect, it was a silly reason for Dunleavy to be drafted 20 spots ahead of Prince.
As I said, it's not an exact science.
Rich (Richmond, VA): Hey, Chad! After the Pistons took care of business at the Palace [Wednesday], what are my chances of seeing a Dallas-Detroit final?
Chad Ford: Depends on which Pistons team shows up. If it's the one we saw last night, I think the Pistons will be fine. However, I'm concerned with their up-and-down play. They are playing with fire. The almost lost Game 6 to Cleveland and, had Miami made its free throws Wednesday night, that game would've been MUCH closer. I've been a believer in Detroit all year and am not going to bail on them now. But their play has shaken my faith.
Jim (Det): Chad, there was an article today in a Detroit paper saying that because of the rule changes that have taken away the clutching and grabbing, the value of Ben Wallace has been diminished and that Joe Dumars may look to do a sign-and-trade with Toronto for Charlie Villanueva, in order to get a more offensive-minded forward. Do you think this could happen? Are there any other sign-and-trade possibilities for the Pistons?
Chad Ford: I think Detroit is in a tough position. Joe D loves Ben Wallace and for good reason. He's the heart and soul of the team. However, his effectiveness has diminished a little this year. Signing him to a huge contract extension takes away any flexibility to add to the team in the future. Joe is between a rock and a hard place here. I know he wants to keep Ben, but a sign-and-trade may make some sense, especially if the Pistons stumble on Friday.
LUIS (CC TX): I believe that the West can only win the championship if Dallas advances to the finals, but would the Suns have a chance against the Pistons or Heat?
Chad Ford: Dallas certainly, on paper, looks like they have the advantage over Miami. Detroit, I'm not so sure about. But we all thought Dallas had the advantage over the Suns and my feeling is that the Suns have outplayed the Mavs in general in the series. Don't count out Phoenix, in other words. Great point guard, great coach, tiring style of play. I think they can win it all too.
Rich (Richmond, VA): I've followed Devin Harris since ESPN The Magazine did a profile on him when he was at Wisconsin. Do you think his performance in the playoffs this year is his "breaking out?" We saw it with Tony Parker the other year, is Harris the next premiere guard?
Chad Ford: Yes. I've always been a fan. He's not a pure point guard, but he can really do lots of things well. With the way the league is changing, guys like Harris should be the biggest beneficiaries. I think he's got a very bright future.