- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

PHOENIX — As Dallas prepared for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, Mavericks coach Avery Johnson urged his team to play with the same desperation it showed in a Game 2 victory.

The Mavericks did just that, and now they’re two victories away from the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.

Sparked by a first-half shoving match between Dallas guard Jason Terry and Phoenix forward Tim Thomas, the Mavericks defeated Phoenix 95-88 to take a 2-1 lead last night.

Dirk Nowitzki had 28 points and 17 rebounds for the Mavericks, who overcame an 11-point first-half deficit and regained the home-court advantage they lost in the series opener. Josh Howard added 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Mavericks.

“We tried to hang in there,” Johnson said. “We just battled for 48 minutes. The game is never over against the Suns.

“Teams are so evenly matched at this time of year,” he said. “It comes down to will. This team is very resilient.”

Game 4 is tomorrow night in Phoenix.

Phoenix’s 88 points are playoff low for the highest-scoring team in the playoffs. The Suns hadn’t lost consecutive games since they dropped three in a row to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. They dropped their second straight game without Raja Bell, who is out with a strained left calf, and dropped to 1-5 with Bell out in the regular season and playoffs.

“We kept battling, but we just didn’t get the thing done,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We didn’t play real smart.”

Steve Nash had 21 points and seven assists for the Suns, and Boris Diaw added 20 points.

Tempers flared late in the first half, when Howard was called for a flagrant foul for hitting Thomas in the face as the Phoenix forward drove to the basket. As Thomas walked to the foul line, he and Terry exchanged shoves, and both players were assessed technicals.

Terry had been suspended for one game for throwing a punch in the second round against San Antonio.

Thomas made both free throws to give Phoenix a 52-42 lead with 2:05 left in the half.

After the scuffle, the Mavericks scored the last five points of the quarter to cut it to 52-47 at halftime.

Dallas kept rolling after intermission, outscoring the Suns 10-2 to take a 57-54 lead.

The Mavericks outscored the Suns 15-2 in a seven-minute stretch after the technicals were called. A 3-pointer by Nash ended the spurt, but Phoenix managed only 16 points in the third quarter, a series low.

“We really resorted to a lot of one-on-one play,” D’Antoni said.

Dallas took a 72-68 lead into the fourth quarter and appeared ready to reclaim home-court advantage. But the Suns tied it at 72-72 on a jumper by Diaw and Shawn Marion’s dunk on a missed layup by Leandro Barbosa.

The Mavericks answered with an 11-2 run, capped by Keith Van Horn’s three-point play to take an 83-74 lead with 6:12 left.

With Dallas leading 90-84 and less than two minutes to play, Nowitzki appeared to miss the rim as the shot clock expired. The Mavericks grabbed the rebound and were allowed to keep possession even as the Suns’ bench exploded in protest.

Terry’s 12-footer in the lane put the Mavericks up 92-84 with 33 seconds to go.

Notes — Bell could return to the lineup for Game 4, D’Antoni said. “Raja feels better today than he did yesterday,” D’Antoni said before Game 3. “He’s not ready to go today. He’ll continue to be day-to-day. I think it will be hard but as soon as he’s ready he’s going to get out there.”

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