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Mavs clinch playoff berth with win over Suns

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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 37 points and Dallas rallied from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter and pulled out the 101-98 victory Saturday night at the 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.

Dallas had a 12-year playoff streak snapped last season after Dirk Nowitzki, who had 23 points and eight rebounds, and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to make it 92-89 with 4:30 to go, struggled after knee surgery and the Mavs finished 41-41.

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) go to 99-98. Ellis 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 Phoenix with 29 points and six assists, was blocked at the rim by Mavs center Brandan Wright, who had a monstrous game with 12 points, 11 rebound and three blocks. Following 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.

The clock has just about run out on the young and season-long surprising Suns’ playoff hopes. After losing Friday night at San Antonio after jumping out to a 21-point lead and 13 at halftime. 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.

From the 1:36 mark of the third quarter, Dallas cut the Suns 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 in the game. The Mavs 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 Suns 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.

Bledsoe scored 13 of his 17 first-half points in the final 4:39 and the Suns closed on a 17-6 run, got ahead by as many as 13 points and led 57-46 at the half.

Phoenix got off to the hot start, particularly Channing Frye, who made four consecutive 3-point attempts, but he also picked up his second foul with 4:41 to go in the first quarter and had to take a seat.

The Suns, who got up by eight points early on, coughed it up seven times in the opening quarter, four coming from guard Eric Bledsoe. Dallas took advantage to lead 27-26 after the first quarter.

Suns guard Goran Dragic played with a badly sprained left ankle. He logged more than 40 minutes, but was held to 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting and four assists.

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.