- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

DALLAS — One game after learning the hard way how much they rely on Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks got a tremendous reminder of why leaning on him is usually a good thing.

Nowitzki shook off his worst game in months by scoring 50 points — including 15 straight in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a rout — to help the Mavericks move within a victory of their first NBA Finals with a 117-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns last night.

The Mavericks lead the Western Conference finals 3-2 with Game 6 set for tomorrow night in Phoenix.

Nowitzki finished with 22 points in the fourth quarter. He set a club record for points in a playoff game and tied Kobe Bryant for the most by anyone this postseason.

“We can’t relax now, as we did in Game 4,” Nowitzki said.

In that game, Nowitzki made only three of 13 shots for 11 points. Not-so-coincidentally, the Mavericks lost by 20.

Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said before this game he wasn’t counting on Nowitzki being off again, joking that he was “crossing my fingers and everything else” in hopes that he would. Nowitzki showed it would take more than that to stop him by scoring 13 points in the first quarter, helping Dallas surge ahead by 14.

“I started off pretty well,” he said.

But he slowed in the second quarter and so did the Mavericks. They trailed by seven in the third quarter as Tim Thomas — who scored 26 points, but was shut out in the fourth quarter — gave the Suns a Nowitzki-like lift.

Then, after a timeout with 3:24 left in the third, Nowitzki simply took over.

Dallas went on a 10-0 run, with Nowitzki scoring seven. They led by one going into the fourth and were still up one with 8:55 left when Raja Bell and D’Antoni were called for technical fouls. Nowitzki made both free throws and his big streak was on.

“When we were down seven in the third quarter, I saw everything slipping away. I tried to make something happen,” said Nowitzki, who was 6-for-7 with a pair of 3-pointers and 8-for-8 on free throws in the final period.

Nowitzki hit 50 with a 3-pointer he was so sure was going to fall that he was nearly at halfcourt celebrating when it went through. He stood in the defensive end grinning wide when Jason Terry broke free for a dunk off a steal on the next possession.

Chants of “M! V! P!” got louder each time he went to the foul line in the fourth quarter. He got a big ovation from the crowd of 20,977 when he went out with 1:12 left.

Nowitzki had 12 rebounds and three assists and made 5-for-6 from 3-point range.

Josh Howard added 23 points and Dallas improved to 24-0 when he cracks 20 points. Jerry Stackhouse scored 16 and Terry had 14 points and nine assists. DeSagana Diop, whose strong inside play was rewarded with his first start of the series, had seven points and nine rebounds.

Thomas set his career playoff high by the end of the third quarter, but took — and missed — only one more shot the rest of the game while playing nine minutes in the fourth quarter.

MVP Steve Nash scored eight of his 20 points in the final period. He also had 11 assists.

Shawn Marion also scored 20 and had 10 rebounds, but he scored only three in the fourth quarter. Boris Diaw had 16, Leandro Barbosa 14 and Bell — still hampered by a calf injury — made only one shot, a 3-pointer, over 29 minutes.

The Suns will be facing elimination for the fifth time this postseason. Add in all the injuries they’ve endured and there’s little doubt they still expect to bring the series back to Dallas for a Finals-or-bust Game 7 on Monday night.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, were playing just their third June game ever. The others? Game 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals in 1988, the only other time they were within a victory of the Finals.

Both teams had exciting, up-tempo stretches in the first half, though not at the same time.

Dallas came out brimming with the energy it lacked in Game 3, zooming ahead with a 13-3 run during which the Mavericks forced the Suns into shot clock violations on three of five possessions, including two in a row. Their lead peaked at 14 and they finished the quarter with 36 points, only four less than the entire second half of Game 4.

Phoenix got going midway through the second, triggered by Nash’s first basket.

Nash hit several jumpers, Thomas mixed 3-pointers and dunks, Marion had a big dunk and Bell made a 3 to get the Suns within 54-51. Nash hit a pair of free throws with 31.1 seconds left in the half that made it a one-point game, but Nowitzki followed with a layup that gave Dallas a 58-55 edge going into the break.

Notes — Dallas’ Devin Harris went missing in action early in the second half. After diving over the Phoenix bench to save a loose ball, the Suns didn’t make room for him to return, forcing him to walk all the way to the Dallas bench to find an opening. … Dallas backup center D.J. Mbenga went from inactive to the suspended list for having gone into the stands during Game 4 in Phoenix. He’s out for six games. … Phoenix fell to 1-6 on the road in Game 5s. The Suns are 4-0 at home.

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