Preview: Phoenix Suns (15-29) at Dallas Mavericks (18-25)

Mavericks 110, Suns 95

TV: FSNA

Mavericks

Suns

My how the mighty have fallen.

Unlike Saturday night’s contest against the San Antonio Spurs, the Phoenix Suns’ final stop on their Texas two-step down memory lane comes in Dallas against an equally downtrodden Mavericks squad.

In fact, there’s very little remaining from the good ole’ days to get nostalgic about 2005 and 2006.

Whereas the Spurs have somehow withstood the test of time, longevity and free agency have not been kind to Rick Carlisle and Co.

Since their magical 2010-11 run, the Mavericks have seen several of their core players leave for greener pastures, including Jason Kidd (Knicks), Tyson Chandler (Knicks), J.J. Barea (Timberwolves), Jason Terry (Celtics) and DeShawn Stevenson (Hawks).

Like the Suns front office, Dallas tried to replace key pieces with a cast of young talent (Daren Collison, Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright) and experienced NBA veterans (Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Dahntay Jones, Chris Kaman and Derek Fisher). That plan, for lack of a better phrase, has failed miserably in Big D.

While the Mavericks still have a star (Dirk Nowitzki, who missed the first 27 games following knee surgery) and a budding star (O.J. Mayo, who leads the team in scoring with 18.1 points per game), team chemistry and team defense (104.4 points per 100 possessions) have the franchise thinking draft lottery for the first time since 2000.

To their credit, the Mavericks have played better basketball of late, winning five of their last seven games. But with a lineup that features the likes of Nowitzki, Carter and Mayo, it’s hard to imagine there’s enough shots to go around and any semblance of defense being played.

American Airlines Center used to be one of the hardest places in the NBA to steal a road victory. Now, Dallas has turned it into a feeding ground for opposing teams, as the visitors are a staggering 9-11 in 2012-13.

The Suns might still be reeling from their fourth quarter letdown against the Spurs Saturday night, but outside of an unfortunate Shannon Brown ejection and a consistent dose of Tony Parker, Phoenix has at least shown signs of improvement under interim head coach Lindsey Hunter.

While the Phoenix’s effort level might only be temporary, given the nature of a team following a coaching change, one thing is for sure: Michael Beasley looks rejuvenated. It might be an extremely short sample size, but the former No. 2 overall pick has looked like a confident offensive option over the last three games. Although the 17.3 points per game  off the pine since Hunter took over looks nice, it doesn’t even tell you the whole story. For the first time this season, Beasley has actually made a concerted effort to take the ball to the basket, and he also looks more comfortable stepping in to a jump shot when need be.

Keys to a Phoenix victory…

Score over a 100. That may seem like a tall task for a Suns team that has only pulled off the feat 12 times 44 games, but the Mavericks defense is abysmal. Dallas has allowed 28 of their 43 opponents to reach the century mark. In their last four losses alone, the Mavericks have given an average of 107.2 points per game. Phoenix’s offense, outside of Michael Beasley, hasn’t shown any noticeable progress under Hunter, but Sunday would be a good time to start a new trend.

Limit Mayo from downtown. Once again, this key may be too tough for the Suns, seeing as they have the second-worst opponent three-point shooting percentage (38.5) in the league. O.J. Mayo (game-high 23 points) didn’t torch Phoenix in the Mavericks’ 97-94 victory on December. But the former USC standout can shoot it from distance (41.8 percent), and so the onus will be on PJ Tucker or Jared Dudley to limit his open touches from beyond the arc.

Dirk factor. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t play back on December 6, and while Steve Nash is no longer a member of the Suns, the former MVP will certainly be thrilled to see the purple and orange come to town. While Nowitzki is still working to get his legs back under him (shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor), the German Moses never wastes an opportunity to play the Suns.  In his 52 career games against Phoenix, Nowitzki has averaged 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Although he might not be able to drop 50 and 12 like he did during the 2006 Western Conference Finals, Luis Scola and Co. need to make No. 41 work to get off shots.

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