DALLAS — The Dallas Mavericks’ quest to get back to the playoffs is fulfilled. It was anything but easy against the feisty and equally desperate Phoenix Suns.
Mavs guard Monta Ellis delivered his best performance of the season, scoring a season-high 37 points and Dallas rallied from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter and pulled out the 101-98 victory Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
By virtue of winning the season series against Phoenix, 2-1, Dallas secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, which it also holds over Memphis. The Mavs (49-32) have one game remaining, at Memphis on Wednesday, but they are assured of finishing in at least a tie with the Suns and Grizzlies, granting them the playoff berth.
“Oh man, it’s great,” said Ellis, who signed a three-year contract with Dallas last summer. “We set a goal for the beginning of the season. We had our ups and we had our downs, but tonight we came together as a team. Everyone really wanted to get this win. It was a total team effort.
“We are just really happy right now. We are going to the playoffs, so it’s time for us to get this last one, get ready for whoever we get matched up with.”
Dallas had a 12-year playoff streak snapped last season as Dirk Nowitzki struggled after knee surgery and the Mavs finished 41-41.
Nowitzki had 23 points and eight rebounds Saturday, and he hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to make it 92-89 with 4:30 left.
The Mavs extended the lead to 99-91 with 1:33 to go but had to sweat it out late as the Suns (47-33) cut it to 99-98.
Ellis, who logged 44 minutes, missed two of four free throws that could have sealed it in the final 20 seconds. But the Suns couldn’t score on consecutive possessions.
Guard Eric Bledsoe, who led Phoenix with 29 points and six assists, was blocked at the rim by Mavs center Brandan Wright, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
After a second Suns timeout, forward Markieff Morris’ 3-point attempt to tie in the final seconds was way off. Dallas rebounded and ran out the clock.
“If you defend, you have a chance to win the game,” Wright said. “It’s as simple as that. Giving up 120, 115, you know we can score a lot of points, but it’s a crapshoot if we can win those types of games. Play hard on defense, give a great effort, we have a chance to pretty much set it up.”
The clock has just about run out on the young and season-long surprising Suns’ playoff hopes. After blowing a 21-point lead and losing Friday night at San Antonio, they couldn’t hold a 57-46 halftime lead at Dallas and now face a do-or-die situation at home Monday night against the Grizzlies.
“It’s really tough to talk right now,” said Suns guard Goran Dragic, who scored 13 points while playing on a badly sprained left ankle. “We lost the most important game of the season. No one expected us to do so well. We have good chemistry. We are still going to fight until the end. We have two games left and hopefully we can win the next game against Memphis and if so, anything is possible.”
From the 1:36 mark of the third quarter Saturday, Dallas cut the deficit to one point five times. Not until the fifth time were they finally able to get a stop at the other end. Ellis fed Nowitzki for a layup to give Dallas its first lead, 88-87 with 6:38 left. The Mavs had last led 35-34 with 7:28 left in the first half.
Consecutive 3-pointers from the hot-shooting Ellis in transition quickly cut the Suns’ 69-56 lead to 69-64 with 4:36 left in the third quarter. Then back-to-back 3s by Nowitzki made it 72-70 until Bledsoe quieted the crowd with a drive. A third Ellis 3-pointer got Dallas to within one, 74-73.
The Suns managed to keep the lead heading into the final, desperate period for both teams, 78-75.
“The reason we won is because we had one of the best players on the planet in Dirk, and because Monta Ellis, at the time we needed him most, stepped up and played the biggest game of the year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “And, he had to play the whole second half — we couldn’t get him out. Those two guys led the way and then a couple stops at the end, Wright with a block, good positioning, and just holding the line when they made a run.”
NOTES: Suns G Goran Dragic returned to the starting lineup after missing Friday’s loss at San Antonio due to a sprained right ankle. “It’s pretty bad,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Goran’s a tough kid — he’ll play through just about anything. I’m sure he’ll try it.” Dragic’s return allowed hot-shooting G Gerald Green, averaging 19.4 points per game since the All-Star break, to come off the bench. … Mavs G Vince Carter entered the game needing seven points to pass Adrian Dantley (23,171) for 25th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. … Saturday’s game started a round robin between the Mavs, Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, the three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots. Memphis visits Phoenix on Monday and Dallas finishes the season at Memphis on Wednesday. … Mavs C and dunk machine Brandan Wright scored his 2,000th career point in the first quarter.
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