- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s a way-too-familiar feeling for Monta Ellis, whose teams made the playoffs only twice in his first eight seasons, and the second time should perhaps have an asterisk attached to it since it came with a sub-.500 Milwaukee Bucks squad that he couldn’t wait to escape last summer.
The Mavs’ top two guns weren’t going to let this team miss out again. They seized a sweet opportunity Saturday night, combining to score 60 points to carry the Mavs to a playoff berth-clinching, 101-98 win over the Phoenix Suns in the regular-season home finale.
"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 had his biggest game of the year," coach Rick Carlisle said.
This is how the Mavs hoped this duo would work when they signed Dirk’s new scoring sidekick to a three-year, $25 million deal this summer.
Truth be told, Ellis has significantly exceeded the expectations of a Dallas front office that wouldn’t have had the cap space to sign him until Devin Harris’ three-year deal was pulled after a pre-signing physical revealed that he needed toe surgery.
Ellis arrived in Dallas with the baggage of being considered an inefficient, selfish player who couldn’t be a major part of a winning franchise. He has revised that reputation this season, blending beautifully as a pick-and-roll partner with Nowitzki, who welcomed the presence of a dynamic off-the-dribble creator able to take a huge offensive burden off his shoulders.
Nowitzki has averaged an efficient 21.6 points during his 12th All-Star campaign. Ellis' numbers have been excellent, too, with averages of 19.0 points and 5.8 assists on 45.2 percent shooting from the floor during his first season in Dallas. His competitive intensity has been even more impressive to the Mavs.
"He’s a rise-to-the-moment player," Carlisle said. "He’s been that really all year. He’s had a lot of huge games for us. He’s a great competitor."
Ellis' performance against the Suns, on a night when the American Airlines Center rocked as though it was a Game 6, was further evidence of that. He put on a dazzling display of determination and talent. Ellis matched his season high with 37 points on 15-of-23 shooting, scoring 23 points in the second half and 12 in the fourth quarter.
As usual, Ellis did a lot of damage around the basket after attacking off the dribble. But his jumper was just as effective against the Suns, as he was 7-of-12 outside the paint, including a pair of 3s on consecutive possessions in the third quarter as the Mavs were fighting back from an 11-point halftime deficit.
"He’s a warrior," said Nowitzki, who had 23 points and eight rebounds. "He’s been a warrior for us all season, but when he makes that shot -- that in-between shot or even the 3 -- he’s tough to guard because he’s so quick off the bounce."
Nowitzki’s status as one of the league’s elite big-game performers was cemented during Dallas' 2011 title run and apparent to anyone who paid attention well before that.
That’s what made his first half so stunning. With the stakes high, Nowitzki got off to a slow start, registering as many turnovers (two) as points by halftime.
"We know he’s going to have bad halves," Ellis said. "We all do. He just stayed with it like the veteran that he is and continued to shoot. He found his touch when he needed to."
Nowitzki found that touch early in the third quarter, in which he played every second, and got hot. He scored 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the second half, including a 3 from the left wing with 4:34 remaining that gave the Mavs the lead for good.
"I was a little out of rhythm," Nowitzki said of his first half. "I only had like four or five shots [in the first half], so I just wanted to look for my shot in the second half. I got some good looks there early. I think I missed my first one, but then I made my next two or three. Then it was on from there."
Added Carlisle, "He is just one of the most amazing guys I have been around, and I’ve been around some pretty amazing guys. He was not going to allow us to lose this game tonight."
Neither was Nowitzki’s new sidekick.