by Robert Ferringo - 05/24/2006
"You and I were long friends; you are now my enemy, and I am yours."
- Benjamin Franklin
The second-seeded Phoenix Suns will visit the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks at 8:30 p.m. EST tonight at the American Airlines Center to begin the 2006 Western Conference Finals. The series will pit friends and former teammates Dirk Nowitski and Steve Nash against one another, with one of them headed to their first-ever NBA Finals.
In Game 1, Dallas is installed as a solid six-point favorite with the total set at 221. Dallas is at -360 to win the series while Phoenix can be found at +260. A decent play on the Mavericks may be on the correct series price, where they are posted at +475 to win in six games and +270 to win in five.
In four meetings between the clubs this season, both Dallas and Phoenix are 2-2 straight-up and against the spread. Each team both won and covered on the opponent's home floor.
This is the second consecutive postseason clash between Nash and Nowitski. Nash, the crazed Canadian and two-time defending NBA MVP, was able to dispatch Dirk, the German Gunner, in six games last year in the Western Conference semifinals.
But those were different times and different teams. Phoenix is now sans Amare Stoudamire while Dallas has undergone a complete philosophical facelift.
Dallas is coming off an emotional seven-game series against Texas rival and defending NBA champion San Antonio. As the victors of that classic series, the Mavericks are now expected to represent the West. The two main reasons for Dallas' domination this May has been the work of Dirk and the defensive dedication instilled by head coach Avery Johnson.
Nowitski is averaging 28.6 points per game on a scorching 52-percent shooting clip. Those totals are the highest of any perimeter player still playing. But the most noticeable difference in Dirk is that he has embraced his role as The Leader. Last season he was divisive in the huddle. But this spring he has deferred to teammates instead of forcing shots, hasn't criticized the play of his post players and he has been attacking the basket in critical situations instead of settling for fall-away jumpers.
Besides the maturation of Nowitski, the Mavericks are still alive because they've been focused and active on the defensive end. They're surrendering just 94.2 points per game in the postseason, fourth-best of the 16 teams that made it. They've held Memphis and San Antonio to just 33-percent shooting behind the arc as guys like Devin Harris and Josh Howard have smothered the perimeter. The Mavs' +7 point differential is a league best in the playoffs.
If the Mavericks are going to the Finals the key will be to maintain the style of play that has gotten them here. The worst thing they can do now is get lured into an up-and-down shootout with the Suns. That will be difficult because Nash is quite the snake charmer and because until this season Dallas' attitude was to score, score and score some more.
The Suns have been running and gunning their way to 109.8 ppg throughout their 14 postseason contests. Players like Boris Diaw (16.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg) and Leandro Barbosa (14.5 ppg) have been unstoppable at times, while Tim Thomas (15.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) has come off the scrap heap to resurrect his career. Phoenix has also risen to the occasion in two Game 7s, posting an average of 124 points on 60.5 percent shooting in those elimination games.
But a concern is the fact that Phoenix has already played 14 games (compared to 11 for Dallas). The Suns play an up-tempo style that is predicated on fresh legs and attacking the basket. However, you have to wonder if they have enough left in the tank to grind out a long series with Dallas.
Dallas has the home-court advantage despite being the lower seed because they had the better overall record during the regular season. I think that if Phoenix is going to make some noise in this series they need to steal the opener and regain that edge. The Mavs may still be a bit punch-drunk after their emotionally draining Game 7 win in San Antonio, and may not have their best game.
Tired legs and a bit of feeling-each-other-out could have an impact on the total in the opening game. In the last ten meetings between these clubs they have scored over 221 points five times. But twice that was 222 points and another was in an overtime game. That's a small margin for error. Also, three of those five high-scoring totals came in last year's playoffs, which was before Dallas played any defense.
Finally, with each team less than 48 hours removed from Game 7 victories I don't expect everyone to come out of the gates firing. But with two incredible offensive forces like the nimble Nash and the dominating Dirk leading the way I'm sure they'll find some ways to put points on the board. Make that lots of points on the board.
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