Sunday, June 04, 2006

The final cut

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Dallas Mavericks made a habit of clinching playoff series on the road, and this was their biggest yet. Now they're headed to the NBA finals for the first time in franchise's 26-year history.

Dirk Nowitzki shook off an awful start to lead a Mavericks' second-half comeback that beat the Phoenix Suns 102-93 on Saturday night to win the Western Conference finals 4-2. Nowitzki, coming off a career playoff high 50 points in Game 5, scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half and the Mavericks clinched a series on the road for the third time in three tries in these playoffs.

"We've been a good road team all season long, we believed in each other," Nowitzki said. "We went through some ups and downs this season, but the playoffs is all about showing heart and playing together." Dallas opens the NBA finals at home against the Miami Heat on Thursday night. It will be a showdown of finals' first-timers, the first time that's happened since Baltimore played Milwaukee in 1971.

The Suns, trying to survive a fifth elimination game in the playoffs, appeared well on their way to sending this series back to Dallas for a Game 7: They shot out to a 16-point first-quarter lead and were up by as many as 18 in the second.

But the Phoenix offense withered in a flurry of foul trouble, and the Suns fell in the conference finals for the second year in a row. Dallas outscored the Suns 63-42 in the second half. Josh Howard added 20 points and 15 rebounds for the Suns and Jason Terry added 17 points, all in the second half. Jerry Stackhouse scored 19 for Dallas.

Boris Diaw had 30 points and 11 rebounds for Phoenix. Steve Nash added 19 points and nine assists and Shawn Marion 13 points and 11 rebounds. Leandro Barbosa scored 14. Dallas used a 17-2 outburst to claim its first lead since 2-0, 68-66 on DaSagana Diop's rebound stuff shot with 9:42 remaining. Stackhouse's 3-pointer with 5:01 left put Dallas up 83-77. Howard's 3-pointer at 1:29 clinched it at 93-83.

Nowitzki, 3-for-13 for a season-low 11 points in his previous game in Phoenix, was 2-for-9 with eight points in the first half, and the Mavericks trailed 51-39 at the break. His second three-point play of the quarter -- on Thomas' fourth foul -- cut the lead to 64-56, the first time the Mavs had been within single digits since the game's opening minutes.

His 18-footer cut it to 66-60, followed by his 12-footer that sliced Phoenix's lead to 66-62 with 58.2 seconds to play in the third. Barbosa's layup was waved off as a 24-second shot clock violation with 9.2 seconds to play, and the score was 66-62 entering the fourth quarter.

Diaw made eight of 10 shots, mostly on driving layups, en route to 20 first-half points and eight rebounds. Phoenix, outrebounded by Dallas in each of the first five games in the series, had a 24-17 advantage on the boards in the first half. But the Mavericks finished with a 39-36 advantage on the boards.

There were 26 fouls called in the first half, 13 on each team. Four Suns had three apiece -- Diaw, Raja Bell, Tim Thomas and Barbosa. Terry had three fouls and played just three minutes in the first half for Dallas. Devin Harris also drew three first-half fouls for the Mavs.

The Mavericks came out flat and the Suns pounced on the opportunity, bolting to a 26-10 lead on Marion's two free throws with 1:08 to go in the first quarter. Phoenix led 29-14 at the end of the period. Dallas, in its lowest-scoring opening quarter this postseason, was 6-for-21 shooting (29 percent) compared with the Suns' 11-for-18 (61 percent)

Doing it with defense, Dallas headed for NBA Finals*

PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Avery Johnson's transformation of the Dallas Mavericks is complete.

Displaying the defense and mental toughness instilled by their coach, the Mavericks are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history as they again shut down the Phoenix Suns in a 102-93 victory.

The fourth-seeded Mavericks closed out the second-seeded Suns in six games in the Western Conference finals. In the first championship in 35 years matching Finals debutantes, Dallas hosts Miami in Game One on Thursday.

"I think for the first time in my life I'm speechless," omnipresent owner Mark Cuban said.

Postseason superstar Dirk Nowitzki had 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks as Dallas dominated the second half. Jason Terry scored all 17 of his points after halftime and Nowitzki added 16 as the Mavericks outscored the Suns, 63-42.

In his first full season as coach, Johnson turned the Mavericks into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA and was named Coach of the Year. The mental toughness was evident when they beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on their home floor in Game Seven of the conference semifinals.

With a chance to clinch the series, the Mavericks got off to a terrible start. They trailed by 18 points midway through the second quarter and were still down, 60-45, before they tightened the defensive screws and making a remarkable reversal.

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