His teammates callDirk Nowitzki "Dirty," not for reasons related to his character orhygiene but partly because of his ability to hit clutch (i.e., dirty) shots andmostly because the handle is an alliterative fit with his first name. Beforethis season, though, the nickname sounded forced, since the Mavs' captain was amellow fellow leading a mellow team. The "dirtiest" figure in thefranchise, clearly, was owner Mark Cuban, who coined the phrase ROWDY, LOUD ANDPROUD that hangs on a banner outside American Airlines Arena. ¬∂ But Dirk is nolonger so mellow, and neither are his Mavs, who look dirtier (as in down anddirty) than even the Pistons, a team known for its toughness and hard-boiledcharacter. More to the point, the Mavericks look a lot dirtier than the PhoenixSuns, their opponent in the Western Conference final. In their 95-88Sunday-night victory, which gave Dallas a 2-1 series lead, the Mavs held theSuns to 36 second-half points, which is like holding any other team to 20. TheMavs made steals (eight), forced Phoenix into uncharacteristic mistakes (12turnovers against only 13 assists) and pounded the offensive boards (19)without sacrificing their transition defense. (Phoenix had four fast-breakpoints, 28 fewer than it had in its 121-118 win in Game 1.) "We've beentough all season," says guard Jason Terry. "We like to mix it up. It'sjust that nobody believes we can." ¬∂ Count the Suns among the skeptics ofthe Mavs' we-be-bad party line. "Dallas did some good things defensively,but it's still on us," said Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni after Game 3."When we've struggled in this series, it's more because of what we've doneto ourselves than what they did to us."
Such assertions,however, have the ring of denial, for the Mavs' dirty D and overallaggressiveness have clearly bothered Phoenix. Every time the Suns grabbed adefensive rebound and took off, they found at least four Mavs back in thepaint, almost as if Dallas had an extra player to cover what forward JerryStackhouse calls "their leak-out guys." In the half-court they swarmedaround the screens that normally free point guard Steve Nash, and whenpick-and-rolls forced Dallas to switch, its big men, center DeSagana Diop inparticular, were fairly successful in covering the two-time MVP without adouble team. "I can go far out on him because I would rather have him driveand use my height to bother him," says the agile Diop, who, unlike fellow7-footers such as Shaq and, more recently, the Clippers' Chris Kaman, has notlooked hopelessly out of place against the Suns' smalls.
Then there isDallas forward Josh Howard, who made a play early in the fourth quarter of Game3 that typifies the Mavs' new grit. In a maneuver that the Suns have runsuccessfully about, oh, 200 times this season, Boris Diaw threw a lob for ShawnMarion, but before he could gather the ball and guide it in, Howard came flyingin from the left baseline to bat it away, possibly the first time any defenderhas stopped that play in that way. "I could see it forming," saysHoward, "and I sniffed it out." Lots of defenders have sniffed it out,though, but arrived too late. Howard shrugged. "There are certain guysblessed to do certain things," he says. "I guess I'm blessed in thatway."
The Mavs and theSuns have always seemed blessed in other ways--or, depending on how you look atit, cursed. To many skeptics this series promised to be a war fought withcardboard swords by two teams that many consider too soft to win a title. Theprincipal difference between the two foes, though, is that Phoenix basks in itssoft rep, conceding that it would rather outscore you than drag you into themud, while the Mavs stand on a street corner yelling about how tough they are.Dallas coach Avery Johnson, a cross between a tent preacher and thatsixth-grade gym teacher who heaves a volleyball at your groin when you forgetyour sneakers, is a major reason for that. So is the astonishingly consistentNowitzki (25, 30 and 28 points in the first three games), who has taken toglowering at teammates and dressing them down for mistakes. So too is Howard,the whirlwind forward who dives for loose balls and scraps on every play.
It's one thing tobeat your chest, however, quite another to make a stand, and after their Game 1loss the Mavs looked like an even meeker version of the team that lost toPhoenix in last year's Western semis. Sure, the Suns needed a buzzer-beatingbaseline basket by Diaw to get that win, but they left the court with thisenergizing thought: The new Dallas? Ha, looks like the same old softies to us."The bottom line is, I don't think they can guard us," D'Antoni saidafterward. "We can get them on every individual matchup." (The coachdid later allow, though, that Howard, who played only five minutes of that gameafter spraining an ankle, is an outstanding defender who could alter hisassessment. Slightly.)
If the Suns don'tget back into the series, D'Antoni will again hear the cries that his teamrelies too much on its high-octane offense. He'll also hear that it's composedof too many marshmallows, at which point he will trot out the French-born Diaw,who has gone from croissant to crusty baguette. A throw-in on the deal thatsent Joe Johnson to Atlanta, Diaw, known best before this season for being TonyParker's close bud, might as well have arrived in Phoenix wrapped up in a pinkbow. "People in Atlanta not only told us Boris was soft," says Sunsassistant Alvin Gentry, "they told us he was the softest player they eversaw." The 6'8" Diaw also shouldered a debilitating burden: He had noposition. He was either a point guard without quickness, a shooting guardwithout a shot, a small forward without great athleticism, a power forwardwithout power or a center without size and bulk. In D'Antoni's system, thatonly meant he was a perfect fit. After a knee injury kept frontcourt bullyAmaré Stoudemire out of action, D'Antoni turned Diaw into a passing pivot, apoint center who serves as Nash's pressure release when the guard is double-and triple-teamed.
Dallas's Terry,who has costarred with Diaw in an Escape from Atlanta playoff subplot (Terry isin his second season with Dallas after being traded from the Hawks), says heisn't surprised that Diaw has prospered. "Boris's label was that he didn'twork," Terry says, "that he was kind of lackadaisical. I never thoughtthat. I saw right away that what he needed was to get into a system thatallowed him freedom."
Diaw didn't domuch to help his own cause in Atlanta. "The coach [Mike Woodson] would askme what position I thought I was, and I would say, 'If you don't know, how do Iknow?'" Diaw could hardly be a more pleasant individual, but he has astubborn streak that prompts him to question almost everything a coach says.Suns assistant Phil Weber works with Diaw, and he describes their relationshipas one "with the ups and downs of marriage." During their dailyshooting drills, when Weber orders Diaw to make 10 shots from a half-dozenspots, the player will usually demand a free shot to get started. "If youcan coach me," says Diaw, "you can coach anyone."
Phoenix'sregression over the first three games parallels the play of Diaw. Game-winningshot and 34 points in Game 1. Solid 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists inGame 2. But five turnovers to go with 20 points and six rebounds on Sunday,when he wasn't able to easily turn the corner on his defender and encountereddouble-team pressure whenever he did.
It was in Game 3that Phoenix truly missed the fire provided by guard Raja Bell, who suffered astrained left calf in Game 1. Bell, remember, clotheslined Kobe Bryant inPhoenix's first-round series against the Lakers; he is the one Sun who couldplay the counterpart to Howard, both of them gnarly, in-your-face competitors.Without Bell, Nash suggested that his team had kind of given in. "We missRaja's talent," says Nash, "but what we miss more is his leadership,the way he plays and how he fights."
That's another wayof saying "playing down and dirty." That isn't Phoenix's M.O., and atweek's end this much was clear: Dallas had seized the low ground, whereplayoffs series are often won.
The Playoff Blog and position-by-position analysis ofthe conference finals at SI.com/nba.