Thursday, April 24, 2003
NBA: Mavs back on top of their game
By Jaime Aron
The Associated Press
DALLAS - The Dallas Mavericks are looking a lot more like the team that began the season with the NBA's best record than the one that gave away the top spot with a shaky final month. With their Big Three of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley coming through when it mattered most, the Mavs withstood a career-high 45 points from Bonzi Wells to beat Portland 103-99 Wednesday night and take a 2-0 lead in the first-round series.
"We didn't play a great game, but we played good enough to win," said Finley, who had 17 points and a key rebound in the final seconds. "We made a lot of defensive mistakes, but that's good if you can do that and still win."
In other games Wednesday night, Philadelphia took a 2-0 lead over New Orleans with a 90-85 victory, and Detroit evened its series with Orlando by winning 89-77. On Thursday night, Indiana is at Boston, New Jersey at Milwaukee, and Minnesota at the Los Angeles Lakers. All three series are tied 1-1.
While it shouldn't be a surprise that a team that won 60 games was able to win twice at home against a No. 6 seed, the talk coming into the playoffs was that Dallas was vulnerable. The Mavericks blew their five-month hold on the best record by dropping four of five at one stretch and going 7-6 without Finley. He returned for the last two games, but wasn't sharp.
Questions remained even after Nowitzki scored 46 points in the opener. Where were Nash and Finley, who had a combined 23 in Game 1? Would Dallas be able to hang with Portland if the Trail Blazers got physical?
Game 2 provided plenty of answers.
Although Nowitzki missed his first six shots and didn't make a basket until 10:49 of the second, the Mavs were already up four. Nash finished with 28 points and eight assists, Nowitzki had 25 points and nine rebounds and Finley made 7-of-12 shots and had seven rebounds.
All three were on target in the fourth, even after enduring three quarters of what coach Don Nelson described as Portland's aggressive defense. Dallas made 10 of 14 shots in the final period, with the trio keying a spurt of eight straight baskets.
Finley started it with a 3-pointer and Nash followed with two more. Nowitzki had a jumper and capped it with a 3-pointer.
In the final half-minute, Nash hit a go-ahead 3-pointer and two free throws. In between, Finley soared for the rebound of a missed free throw by Wells with Dallas leading by only two.
The Mavericks also endured both their big men fouling out long before the game was decided.
"This is an example of our mental toughness," said Nash, who was 5-of-6 on 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. "We've played through all the adversity. We held our home court. They have a lot more to lose than we do."
Dallas heads to Portland for Game 3 halfway to a sweep, and the Trail Blazers go home trying to figure out how to end a nine-game postseason losing streak. They also will be trying to avoid being bounced via sweep for the fourth time in five seasons.
"They did what they're supposed to do, which is defend their home court. Now we've got to do the same," said Portland coach Maurice Cheeks, who fell to 0-5 in the playoffs. "Dirk made a lot of heck-of-a-shots, but Steve made the last heck-of-a-shot."
Wells was as hot in Game 2 as Nowitzki was in the opener.
After scoring 27 through three quarters, he had 18 in the fourth - including 14 of Portland's first 17. He finished 16-of-24, going 5-of-6 behind the arc and 8-of-11 at the line.
"I was feeling good and my shots were going down," Wells said. "If I stay aggressive like that, I should have some more games like this."
Wells smashed his previous career best of 37, topped Clyde Drexler's team playoff record of 42 and erased the 43 points by Dale Ellis that had been the most against Dallas in the playoffs.
"We tried different defenses, but he was in a good zone," Finley said. "We're happy time ran out."
Wells just didn't get enough help. Wallace had 18 points, but went 6-of-17, and a bench that produced 39 points in Game 1 had just 18 this time.
The Blazers also got only three minutes from its usual starting backcourt as Scottie Pippen didn't dress and Derek Anderson left with an injury. Both have injured left knees. Their status for the next game hasn't been determined.
"Not having them takes away from our whole team chemistry," Wells said.
76ers 90, Hornets 85
At Philadelphia, Allen Iverson, coming off a 55-point performance in the opener, had 29 points, and Kenny Thomas added 17 points and 16 rebounds to help the 76ers take a 2-0 lead.
Game 3 is Saturday in New Orleans.
David Wesley had 24 points for New Orleans. Jamal Mashburn scored 14, but only one point after dislocating his right middle finger in the third quarter.
The Hornets were without Baron Davis, their second-leading scorer who was out with a left knee injury.
Pistons 89, Magic 77
At Auburn Hills, Mich., five Pistons, led by Richard Hamilton with 30 points, were in double figures, offsetting another huge performance by Tracy McGrady. The NBA's leading scorer this season had 46 points, three more than in the opener.
Detroit's Ben Wallace, who won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award earlier in the day, had 16 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and 10 points. Game 3 is Friday in Orlando.
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