Phoenix The Phoenix Suns have played their best when they were on the brink of playoff elimination.
Well, here they are again.
The Dallas Mavericks, riding a 50-point performance by Dirk Nowitzki on Thursday night, lead the Western Conference finals 3-2 and can finish off the Suns by winning Game 6 tonight in Phoenix.
Phoenix has already come from 3-1 down to beat the Lakers in the first round and survived a Game 7 to get by the Clippers in round two. This time, the Suns must win two in a row against the deep and talented Mavericks, a team that needs just one more victory to earn the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.
"We can do it again, I hope," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, whose team is 4-0 in elimination games in these playoffs. "Obviously that's the only choice we have right now."
Nowitzki, coming off a career playoff high for points, got a well-deserved day off from the Mavericks' practice Friday.
"With a game like that," teammate Devin Harris said, "he needs as much rest as he can get."
The last time the Mavs played at US Airways Center, they were blown out by 20 points in Game 4, an evening made worse by a nasty confrontation between Dallas coach Avery Johnson's wife Cassandra and some Suns' fans in the stands.
"We didn't have a good experience in Phoenix on or off the court the last time we were there, if you know what I mean," Johnson said. "Hopefully we can go in there and play more of a 48-minute game."
Even though they are comforted by the knowledge that if there is a Game 7, it will be in Dallas, the Mavericks don't want the series to go down to a winner-take-all contest. A victory tonight could shift the momentum yet again.
"They're going to come out and they're going to try to jump all over us," Johnson said. "The crowd is going to be pretty intense, just as much as our crowd is intense. We've got to keep our composure, stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish defensively and offensively."
As usual, the Mavericks' main goal will be to keep the Suns out of a frenetic, transition game.
"They're going to come out aggressive, come out playing their style of basketball," the Mavs' Jerry Stackhouse said. "That's one thing about Phoenix that doesn't change. They play their way, regardless of what the score is. Up 20, down 20, they're going to play their way. We just have to play our way, that's the key."
The Mavericks also can't allow themselves to think too much about how close they are to the finals.
"We may say that it's just another day at the office," Johnson said, "but we know that's not the truth. Guys kind of know what's going on and surrounding us."
"We just need to focus on those things."
The Suns' Raja Bell will give it another try, playing in his third game in six nights despite a slightly torn left calf muscle. He obviously was struggling at times Thursday night.
"He came over to me during the game at one point," D'Antoni said, "and said 'Mike, if you want to take me out, take me out, I can't go, I can't move quick enough.' I told him he was selling himself short. I think he's important no matter what. 'Even though you've got one bum leg, I'd rather play with you than most guys."'
Bell wasn't at practice Friday, but was in the locker room receiving treatment in hopes he could, in D'Antoni's words, "have a little more juice" for Game 6.
"Just his presence has been more than we could ask for," teammate Steve Nash said. "Should he be playing? No. Is he helping us being out there? Yes. Is he out there at best? No."
While Nowitzki was going off offensively, his good friend and former Dallas teammate Nash was struggling through a 5-for-17 shooting night.
"I felt robbed a little bit because I felt good," Nash said. "It's understandable on nights when you don't feel good and your body's not there. But rarely does it happen when you actually feel good and it feels like it's going in when you let go of it."
The Suns were leading 77-70 Thursday night when everything began to fall apart. Shawn Marion, who was plagued by foul trouble, said his team was at its best when it just goes and doesn't think too much.