Mavericks 122, Suns 117 – A knockout blow


PHOENIX – You could feel it in the third quarter when the Suns could not stop Dirk Nowitzki or answer him at the other end.

You could feel it when Jason Kidd hit two back-breaking threes to push the Dallas lead to 13 with just over three minutes left after the Suns finally double-teamed Nowitzki.

You could feel it when the crowd streamed to the exits at the following timeout, leaving a sparse few loyal followers praying for a miracle finish.

And you certainly could feel it in a silent Suns locker room, where the team’s standings board saw Phoenix slip five games out of a playoff spot after its 122-117 loss to the Mavericks.

That feeling, of course, is that of a former juggernaut all but headed to the lottery after another sickening loss in another game Suns players labeled as a must win.

“It’s a tough loss tonight,” said forward Matt Barnes, “but here on out is a must win, so you’re probably really going to get tired of hearing that.”

We already have tired of that, but that’s the reality of the situation.

A mere 18 games remain on the schedule, and the Suns must better Dallas by five games, including a victory April 5 in Big D and a tiebreaker win that would be likely if Phoenix were to go on a requisite tear.

To put into perspective the kind of run we’re talking about, if the Mavericks were to play .500 ball from here on out the Suns would have to go 14-4. That’s fewer losses in the team’s final 18 games than Phoenix has dropped in its last five.

“That’s going to be a real test of the character, individually and as a group,” said guard Steve Nash. “For us to get in it’s going to have to be something wild I think. We’re going to have to go on a tear, and one of the teams ahead of us is going to have to tank a little bit, but anything can happen, and we’ve got to play with that attitude.”

Then Nash voiced the fear that everybody in the room was thinking following five consecutive excruciating losses and a playoff fate that looks to be all but decided barring a miracle.

“Now is the time where we could really splinter and not play hard or not concentrate, and it’s up to us to really take pride in one another and try to pick each other up and play as hard as we can down the stretch here and see what happens,” he said.

Echoed Shaq, “It was a tough loss, but we’ve got to stay together. This is a time where a team really can get fragmented.”

It will be very interesting to see how the next few games go on that front. I would not be terribly surprised to see this team lose hope and get blown out a couple times after coming oh so close from winning the past few.

Nash already was disgusted by the effort in Tuesday’s second half, when an early-second half 9-0 Dallas run put the Mavs up for good. Nash called his team’s performance to start the second half “really flat,” adding, “I thought we’d have a little more fire.”

In a game in which the Suns scored 117 points and shot 55.2 percent from the field, the biggest reason they ended up losing (of course) came on the defensive end, more specifically in their utter failure to slow down Dirk.

And where have we heard that before, the opposing team’s star burning the Suns?

After a “quiet” 11-point first half, Dirk torched the Suns for 23 on 9-for-14 shooting in the second half.

The Suns tried a heavy dose of Barnes, a few drops of Grant Hill and a touch of J-Rich, but nobody could slow down the big German.

You’ve got to give the Mavs credit for doing something I don’t believe is done enough in this league, and that is finding a play that the other team can’t guard and then milking it all the way to a ‘W.’

As hard as he tried, the 6-foot-7 Barnes could not guard Nowitzki. He did a nice job getting up in Dirk’s grill and making him take contested shots, but once Dirk caught fire NBA Jam style in the second half, there was nothing Barnes could do to offset five inches of height and his opponent’s silky smooth jumper.

The Suns tried denying the entry feed around the free-throw line, where Dirk punished the smaller Suns all half, but as head coach Alvin Gentry astutely asserted, he’s seven feel tall so when they throw the ball up in the air he’s going to catch it. Once Dirk caught it, the ball was going in the basket.

“We tried to make him take tough shots,” Barnes said. “I swear I had him off balance with a hand in his face, and they would hit the rim, hit the rim again and just go in or hit the back of the rim and go in. He hit a lot of tough shots, and that’s what he does. I just tried to make him work for his shots, but he got hot in the second half.”

Added Gentry, “I don’t know what more Matt could have done. There is a reason they pay him a whole lot of money because he is a helluva player, and he made a lot of great shots. That’s all I can ask guys. I’m telling you, all I can ask the guys to do is play as hard as they can and try to do the best they can.”

That leads us to the biggest reason the Suns have been unable to close games. Without Amare, they just don’t have the horses.

We’ll never know if things would be different with Amare (I think they would be), but as J-Rich said, the Suns just can’t think that way.

As it is, Phoenix struggles to match up defensively against most teams with its small ball lineup, and it makes me a bit queasy that Dirk has said the toughest defender he faces in the NBA is Shawn Marion.

Yeah, he might be a little helpful right about now.

To add insult to injury, the Mavs won this game without Josh Howard to snap a nine-game road losing streak to Western Conference foes, winning their first West game away from Dallas this calendar year. And yes, it is March 10.

For the Suns, it feels like that “season-changing” win over the Lakers on March 1 was in a whole different calendar year.

Looking on the bright side, for Phoenix fans who still don’t want to miss out on the excitement of the NBA playoffs, you may still be in luck according to Shaq.

“We’ve got 18 games left, so we’ve got to damn near win them all, and just see whatever happens,” he said. “It’s the story of our season. We played well, fought well, we just let it slip away.

“We have 18 games left, so our playoffs actually started tonight. We’ve got to pick it up as a team and just see what happens.”

Playoff basketball in March?

Maybe those San Antonio smackdowns weren’t so bad after all.