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Old 02-20-07, 06:07 AM
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Can the Mavs and Phoenix finish as strong as they started?

Until a recent shoulder injury to Steve Nash slowed them heading into the All-Star break, the Suns were going step for step with the Mavericks. Phoenix has winning streaks of 15 and 17 games this season.

"It's not over," says Mike D'Antoni, who is hopeful Nash will play tonight at the Los Angeles Clippers. "We're a confident group. We've hit a little skid here without Steve, but we're going to be there. … We'd have to play our best, and then we'll see what happens.

"I think Dallas right now is just above everybody. … We root against Dallas every time we can. We root against the Spurs, too. We'd love for Dallas or San Antonio to falter. They aren't cooperating right now."

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says the Mavs and Suns are playing well above the rest.

"They've got seven, eight, nine guys on each team that are playing well, especially Dallas," Popovich says. "I think Dallas is half a notch above Phoenix because they play such good defense."

Nevertheless, the Spurs — 34-18, behind Dallas, Phoenix and the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference — like their position.

"We have been up and down, but we hope to turn that around," Spurs All-Star forward Tim Duncan says, "and hopefully we can get right back in the mix.

"Dallas has 10 solid guys they can go to. It's a luxury. They're playing better basketball than we are, but we'll take the matchup."

That is the remaining question: Can the Mavs keep their focus?

"I'm very hard on this team," Johnson says. "But they tolerate me, and I'm trying to stretch them and pull them."

Popovich has won championships with a team way in front and a team lurking in the background.

"I think what is important is a group of men understanding that the real job is to get better as the season moves along and to be at your best at the end," Popovich says. "Houston did it from behind, L.A. has done it both ways, we've done it both ways."

Terry believes the Mavericks have that something special to carry out their mission.

"It's our desire and will to win," he says. "When we face adversity, whether it's a 10- or 15-point deficit or if we just lost a game, we come back with fierce emotion and energy and we put it on the line every night. Our motto this year is, 'Finish it.' "
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