Dallas Mavericks 112, Phoenix Suns 106 — Still struggling down the stretch

The Suns had no answer for Dirk Nowitzki on Thursday night as the Mavericks improved to 2-0 against the Suns this season. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

PHOENIX — The final buzzer of Thursday night’s game marked the beginning of a quick break for the Phoenix Suns as the NBA heads into the All-Star break.

However, it also marked the continuance of the Suns’ struggles in the fourth quarter, a place where they can’t seem to catch a break.

After playing the Mavericks close until the game’s final five minutes, the Suns faltered down the stretch and surrendered their second game of the season to Dallas, 112-106.

“We just weren’t sharp enough,” Suns point guard Steve Nash said after the game. “We didn’t make enough plays at either end. We missed a lot of open shots.”

The Suns were sharp enough to outrebound one of the biggest teams in the Western Conference (43-39), but not sharp enough to do anything about the Mavericks’ MVP candidate.

Forward Dirk Nowitzki lit up the Suns for 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting, making Suns forward Channing Frye look helpless defensively.

“We can’t let Dirk get off to such a hot start, and that’s my fault,” Frye said. “He’s making tough shots, give credit to him. They executed and that’s why they’re a good team.”

Frye did lead the Suns on the other end though with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-5 from behind the three-point line.

The Suns have now been outscored in the fourth quarter of eight of their last 10 games, a stretch in which the team has gone 7-3. Though the Mavericks’ 27-26 fourth-quarter edge was slight Thursday, it didn’t come down to just points.

“At the end of the day, they made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t quite make them,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “We had shots that could have closed the gap and they didn’t quite get in the basket. I thought we played hard and competed, but once again, we have nothing tangible to show for it.”

For their recent efforts, which entering the night were the league’s fourth best since Jan. 12, the Suns enter the All-Star break sitting once again at .500. The loss to Dallas is just the Suns’ second loss in their last eight games against teams above .500.

“I think we’re inconsistent,” Gentry said. “I think that’s the thing that will hurt us most, but I think the effort is there night in and night out.”

Of late, the Suns’ defense has been uncharacteristically consistent, holding the league’s second-best opponent field goal percentage (42.7) over the last 10 games entering the night and limiting their last five opponents to 46 percent shooting.

The Mavericks’ size and depth, though, was able to best the Suns’ defense, as Dallas shot 52.4 percent, the best by a Suns opponent since Jan. 24.

“When our shots weren’t falling, we needed to get some stops on the defensive end,” Suns center Robin Lopez said. “That didn’t happen, so there’s some progress to be made.”

Lopez made progress of his own, continuing his recent aggressive play and notching his first double-double since Oct. 29 and second of the season with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Nash also doubled up with 15 points and 14 assists.

It’s hard to find a complaint in this Suns loss without nitpicking. The Suns, a non-playoff team at the moment, had the Western Conference’s second-best team on the ropes late in the game, which in itself is an encouraging sign.

After taking a lead, the Suns gave up a 9-0 Dallas run as the third quarter ended. They picked up the energy in the fourth, however, cutting the lead to two points with 5:38 to play. That’s when the Mavericks turned it on though, going on a 9-2 run to again pull away.

It would have been easy for the Suns to let the game go from there and chalk it up to playing one of the NBA’s top teams, but they refused to do so, again getting close after a Frye three-pointer made it 109-106.

What more can you ask of a team that outrebounds an opponent with two seven-footers in the starting lineup, shoots 51.2 percent  and stays in the game to the very end?

Well, if anything, better three-point shooting. The Suns were just 5-of-18 for 27.8 percent while the Mavericks were 10-of-27 for 37.0 percent. But again, nitpicking.

With no Suns participating in the All-Star festivities, the whole team gets a break before making a playoff push over the final 28 games.

“I believe in this team,” Gentry said. “We will come back after the All-Star break and we will play good basketball and we will find a way to make a run and get in the playoffs.”

And 1

With the win, the Mavericks are now 9-0 against the Pacific Division, including 4-0 on the road. … Gentry remains one win shy of 100 as the Suns’ head coach, losing on the two-year anniversary of his Suns debut.

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