DALLAS -- Full disclosure right off the top: I am a full-fledged, openly condescending NBA snob who has never embraced the purported romance of March Madness.
Witnessing a classic duel
I think I can get away with claiming, biased as I am, that you might have missed the best basketball game of the month if you weren't watching Wednesday night.
The NBA's top two teams, on the last night before they fully cede their sport's spotlight to the Big Dance, hooked up for what was hyped up as a surefire thriller and still managed to give us a better show than anyone envisioned.
It's always a classico when the Suns and Mavericks get together, but it's probably never been this memorable in the regular season: Phoenix zooming to an immediate 16-point lead, Dallas turning things around so drastically that the home team led by 16 early in the fourth and then two overtimes after the wild momentum swings to finally settle the duel before the Suns escaped with a contentious 129-127 triumph.
"A pretty good game," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni joked.
"If you're into that kind of thing."
We noted when these teams met right after Christmas that you wished they played more than four times a season, since they seem incapable of giving us anything less than a to-the-buzzer battle that always comes with an unmistakable slice of playoff atmosphere.
Yet it appears that these teams somehow found an even more rarefied air for this one, perhaps because of this D'Antoni theory: Dallas and Phoenix are too good, no matter what happens, for one game in March "to leave a scar on either of the teams."
So maybe that's why they both just kept swinging in a game full of superlatives and oddities.
Steve Nash won the battle of the Most Valuable Player candidates, totaling 32 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds in an outing highlighted by a late fallaway 3-pointer in regulation to force overtime and -- get this -- an acrobatic steal of an inbounds pass in the final minute of the second overtime with the Mavs down just two. No wonder Suns teammates serenaded him with chants of "Three Time, Three Time'' when the two-time reigning MVP made it back to the locker room.
Dirk Nowitzki was thus forced to settle for the evening's biggest, loudest dunk not the mark he usually leaves -- as part of a wholly unsatisfying 30 points, 16 boards and six assists. All he'll remember, surely, are the four measly points he managed in the two extra periods and five free throws Dallas uncharacteristically missed in the fourth quarter that could have sealed a 3-0 lead in the season series. Three of those misses came from Nowitzki, who's only a 91-percenter.
Yet as spectacularly as the game's marquee names played, both Nash and Nowitzki were matched or even outdone by more than one participant.
Dallas' Jason Terry did what Nowitzki could not, sinking a line-drive, game-tying triple late in the first OT in contrast to the German's missed jumpers at the regulation and second-OT buzzers.
The Suns' Shawn Marion, meanwhile, played some sticky defense on Nowitzki in the extra periods, perhaps fresh for the finish because D'Antoni started Boris Diaw on him and also tried Raja Bell as his primary Dirk Defender for the first time, curious to "see if some of that pest factor" Bell possesses would have an impact against a 7-footer widely regarded as the league's toughest individual matchup. Yet it was Marion who did the best job of the three and announced afterward: "I've been playing great D for years. But now I'm pushing myself for Defensive Player of the Year."
The theoretical Comeback Player of the Year wasn't bad, either. It's a trophy that no longer exists, true, but Amare Stoudemire -- with a sore back, apparently -- arguably eclipsed all of the above with a 41-point, 10-rebound detonation that looked like a rewind to the Amare from the 2005 playoffs. I imagine Nowitzki will be seeing more of that three-man rotation of Diaw, Bell and Marion, but it's probably even safer to suggest that Stoudemire's role in the Suns' offense is bound to get bigger as the playoffs draw near, given his 24 points after the third quarter as Phoenix erased that 92-76 deficit.
The Mavs fumed afterward about whistles they didn't get at the end, about wasting a 27-11 advantage in offensive rebounds alone and 33 points off the bench from Jerry Stackhouse. But they were philosophical, too, after their first defeat at American Airlines Center in 24 games, going all the way back to Dec. 7.
Dallas knows it made too many mistakes, Josh Howard's foul to give Nash three free throws with less than 15 seconds left in regulation chief among them, to complain too loudly about anything. The hosts picked an inopportune time to have an NBA Finals relapse, poise-wise, in what might have been the most anticipated game of the regular season.
"They got a couple key defensive stops and they deserved to win the game," Stackhouse said. "We got down, fought back to get into the game, got up, they fought back to get into the game and then we had a couple of fun overtimes. A bounce here, a bounce there. But a lot of that has happened [in Dallas' favor] during the different streaks that we've had during the season and tonight the ball bounced the other way."
A couple of fun overtimes, indeed.
The sort of game you March Madness devotees expect this time of year, right?
"It was definitely an NCAA-worthy performance," Nash said.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images
In a battle of MVP candidates, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, the Suns outlasted the NBA's best team in two overtimes.
With his team riding a ten-game losing streak, Pacers president Donnie Walsh updates Chad Ford on the sorry state of the team. How have the midseason trades affected the Pacers?
Erick Dampier collected 11 rebounds for the Mavs, all off the offensive glass in the 129-127 loss to the Suns. Since the NBA started tracking the category in 1973-74, only two other players had at least 11 offensive rebounds in a game in which they gathered none on the defensive end: Bill Laimbeer (11 for the Pistons on Jan. 9, 1993) and Popeye Jones (12 for the Mavericks on March 10, 1994).
The Suns rise to the challenge
Tim Heitman//NBAE/Getty Images
Amare Stoudemire scored 41 points in the Suns' win. The Suns have 18 games left and the Mavs have 19. They meet again April 1 in Phoenix, with Dallas leading the season series 2-1. A Mavs win would give them the tiebreaker.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
One factor working against fired Bucks coach Terry Stotts: I've heard player rumblings that he was struggling to reach not only Andrew Bogut but also Villanueva, two key members of Milwaukee's core. Krystkowiak, by contrast, is said to have a strong rapport with Milwaukee players even though this is his first season on an NBA bench.
That might be because Krystkowiak played almost a decade in the NBA, including five seasons with the Bucks.
One thing he has in common with the coach he's expected to replace: Krystkowiak, like Stotts, is a long-time Kohl favorite.
John (Harrisburg, PA): Who has the ugliest shooting mechanics in the league?
David Thorpe: Everybody chime in with this one. I'll vote for Ben Wallace as a big and Desmond Mason for the smalls.
Dudley: (Yonkers, NY): David, I can't guard a rock. What can I do to improve my defense.
David Thorpe: Find a slower, or smaller, rock.
Steve (Phoenix, AZ): Shawn Marion has the worst-looking shot, bar none!
David Thorpe: I will not argue that one either.
Chris (Detroit): Tay Prince has a nasty-looking shot. Appears reasonably fundamental, but he puts all eight-foot of skinny arms into it.
David Thorpe: I was thinking Prince all along. Nice job.
Chad(Wisconsin): Shaq's shot from the foul line has to be on the list.
David Thorpe: We have our winner.
Suns center Amare Stoudemire was sizzling from the field, making 16-of-19 from field, the third most efficient 40-point scoring night in the last 10 seasons.
-- Michael E. Jackson, ESPN Research