Updated: Nov. 10, 2006, 10:13 AM ET

West finalists looking better

The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks played Thursday night, a meeting of two Western powers that entered the game with a combined one win between them.

It was good to see these two revert to form, giving a playoff game-like performance. The Mavs earned their first win of the season 119-112 moving to 1-4. The Suns are 1-5. Yes, those are your Western Conference finalists from last year.

I thought it was a gut-check game for both teams. Especially the Mavs, who were coming off a low-energy performance against the Clippers.

But Dirk Nowitzki (35 points) stepped up big time. He willed his team to victory. For Dallas to have a guy like Jerry Stackhouse fill in for Josh Howard, is impressive. I thought Jason Terry (30 points) did a very good job. Hopefully this jump-starts the season on the right path.

A bright spot for Phoenix was Amare Stoudemire, who played 35 minutes and competed with the same intensity that he did two years ago. You saw the power dunks that made him so good. This is a game that he can build on. Games like tonight should show him that he can compete at the highest level.

Even though Howard and Raja Bell didn't play, both teams seemed to rise to the occasion. When these two teams play better on offense, their defense seems to get better too.

Coming into this game, I thought the Mavs had taken the NBA Finals loss hard. Now their challenge is finding the motivation and team chemistry needed to get back to the championship. As for the Suns, their main task is working Stoudemire back from injury and into the team's fast flow.

First, the Mavs. If you look back at the first quarter of the season last year, there were a lot of games where they would win a bunch of crazy, last-quarter comebacks, games you might call "lucky" wins.

Now, early on, they haven't been quite as lucky.

They've certainly played some tough teams (Spurs, Rockets and Hornets) along with a Golden State team that they have matchup problems with. It didn't help that newcomer Devean George was sidelined for the first three games with a stomach ailment.

It's a team that's still evolving. Coach Avery Johnson brought in hustle players like Greg Buckner, Austin Croshere and Anthony Johnson. These guys are role players and in some cases better than just role players. How they fit into the Mavs' system is the challenge. This is a team still being reshaped.

Overall, the Mavs aren't looking quite as wide open as last year. They play in some complex schemes, and there's going to be some growing pains. But they have way too much talent to stay down for long.

Now, the Suns. They too have had a tough early schedule. Phoenix is a very good team when Steve Nash is creating opportunities for teammates all over the court.

Because of their style of play, you can always catch them even if they're up by 20, and conversely, they can always catch you when you're up 20.

But they would be harder to catch with an effective and healthy Stoudemire, who's still working his way back from microfracture knee surgery, his minutes limited for now. Coming back is also mental too -- getting back to his old way of playing means becoming comfortable with the knee.

Ultimately, it's a risk-reward question for the Suns. The risk is found in the difficulty fitting him into the system -- going that way may end up costing the Suns some games. His presence affects how Boris Diaw is used -- Amare needs space on the floor and room to operate.

The reward of having Stoudemire is worth the risk of short-term losses. This is a team that has the potential to go much further if they get Amare healthy and in the Phoenix flow. Without him, the team doesn't look like one that is at the level of winning a championship.

The whole dynamic of team chemistry is a very tricky thing. You can't underestimate it.

Look at the Nuggets -- a team that last season won the Northwest Division, finding that delicate balance needed for a winning NBA team.

Now, they're struggling a bit, with three close losses to start the season.

The Suns and Mavs are having some struggles early on, but better times are coming for both. Thursday's game showed that.

ESPN analyst Kiki Vandeweghe, who was the Nuggets GM for five years until last spring, played 13 NBA seasons, averaging 19.7 ppg for four teams from 1981-1993.

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Floored By Cleveland
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
Cavs guard Sasha Pavlovic battles Bulls guard Chris Duhon. With the Cavs' bench shooting a sizzling 21-for-30 (70 percent), Cleveland took it to the Bulls, earning a 113-94 home win.

Observation Deck: Character Clash
LeBron James

L'IL PENNY GOT NEXT: After watching the numerous basketball related commercials during NBA telecasts, I'm left with one lingering thought: Who would win a one on one game between LeBron's Grandpa character and Larry Johnson's Grammama? -- David Thorpe

BEN'S SHOT: Scott Skiles has got to figure out how he can get Ben Gordon back to doing what he did his rookie year. Shooting 10 percent from the field as the starting 2 guard for Chicago means death to the Bulls' chances of winning (except when playing a Heat team that mails in its performance). He's a much better player than what he has shown in a few games already this season, and pouring in 37 the other night only creates more questions when he lays eggs in games like tonight. -- Thorpe

GAME 7 LOOMS: Dallas and Phoenix are both learning the importance of sheer effort when trying to win a game. And not just effort in games, but in training camp and daily practices too. Their struggles now are mostly related to lack of preparation in the offseason and preseason. There is time to figure it out, but every loss now will figure into where a Game 7 may be played.

(Steve) Nash is a legit MVP and (Shawn) Marion is just as legit as an All-Star, but I get the sense that (Boris) Diaw is the key to the Suns' chances this year. His incredibly unique talents really provide a winning edge to what Phoenix does. -- Thorpe

CALLING UNCLE RICO: If Napoleon Dynamite can learn to dance as well as he did, then Desmond Mason should be able to learn how to shoot. His shot looks so unnatural and mechanical. He is such a gifted athlete, but watching him shoot jumpers is more difficult than only eating one beignet when visiting New Orleans. -- Thorpe

WIN SNARES: I love Charles Barkley, but the man is repeating himself. We're only a week into the season and he's already on his usual "Phoenix can't win because they don't play defense" kick. Since Phoenix averaged 58 regular season wins the last two years, won four playoff series in that stretch and reached the West finals both seasons, that's a strange claim. Not to mention hypocritical, since the former Sun was himself known for his lackadaisical D. -- Royce Webb

MSG FIXTURE: Among the tributes to the late "60 Minutes" newsman Ed Bradley, we learned he was a big Knicks fan. Also, his first duties as a radio reporter for WDAS in his native Philadelphia included covering basketball. -- Andrew Ayres

A Double-Double -- Not The Good Kind
Steve Nash

Steve Nash committed 10 turnovers and missed 10 of his 18 field-goal attempts in the Suns' 119-112 loss. Only Dwyane Wade had 10 turnovers and 10 missed shots in the same game last season, but Nash is the second player to do it this month. Mike Bibby is the other.

Elias Says

Buzz Kill

Warriors guard Baron Davis came into the league with the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. On Thursday, he showed his old team his stuff, scoring 36 points with zero turnovers.

Hornets last of the unbeatens to fall.

Western Front
Delonte West
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire jostle for position. Barring injury, this jostling could go on for many years.

Extreme Behavior
Baron Davis

Thursday's Best
Warriors guard Baron Davis: Drops in 36 points as the Warriors send the NBA's last unbeaten team, the Hornets, to a 121-116 defeat. Had nine assists and zero turnovers. Very nice.

Ben Gordon

Thursday's Worst
Bulls guard Ben Gordon: Some nights are just not your night. This wasn't Ben's -- he made 1-of-10 field goals, good for two points in the loss to Cleveland.

Quote of the Day
"We're done messing around and we're going to play guys that are going to play hard."
-- Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, upset after his team fell to 1-5.

See how all 60 who played stacked up

-- Andrew Ayres

Rank Comments

Aaron (Phoenix): A seven-spot drop? The Suns do have the hardest opening schedule of any team out there. Each of their first six games is part of a back-to-back and all are against likely Western Conference playoff teams. Cut them some slack, man!

Committee's counter: With a drop from No. 4 to No. 11, I actually thought we were cutting them some slack.

See Marc Stein's Rank Comments Insider

Hot Starts

Zach Randolph, Blazers: Is it possible for somebody to win the Most Improved Award twice? Randolph won it three years ago but is playing ridiculously well to start this season, reminding everyone why the Blazers gave him that oft-ridiculed six-year, $84 million extension.

Overwhelming the Sonics in the opener was one thing -- really, who doesn't? -- but hanging 35 and 37 on the two L.A. teams was an eye opener. He's obviously in much better shape, too, after struggling to return from knee surgery a year ago.

Randolph leads the league in player efficiency rating and is fourth in scoring, helping Portland to a surprising 3-2 start. Now let's see if he can keep showing up on time for the games.

See the full John Hollinger story Insider

Oden Might Stay
Greg Oden

Drew (Indy): Chad: How about a draft question. Is there any chance Greg Oden stays another year in school? I'm hearing it's a good possibilty. If he does who besides Joakim Noah has a shot to unseat him as No. 1?

Chad Ford: He might. He loves school and he's the type of kid who doesn't have his entire identity wrapped up in playing in the league ... reminds me of Tim Duncan that way. If he's slow to recover from his wrist injury ... it's possible. Just look at what Joakim Noah did last year. As for Noah ... I'm not sure. He was everyone's darling last year, but now scouts are going to scrutinize every aspect of his game this year. He's going to have to improve this year to still have a shot at No. 1 in my opinion.

Michael (Belleville, Ontario): Hey Chad, who would you rather have, Dwight Howard or Chris Bosh? Do you think Bosh can develop into an elite defender?

Chad Ford: Right now ... Bosh. No question. He's much more consistent. But I still like the upside of Howard. In another two years, I think Howard will surpass him, but both guys will be All-Stars for years.

Timmy Boy SLC UT: Chadman, How about some love for the Utah Jazz. I know they lost last night but they are looking great. Will they win their division?

Chad Ford: They've been one of the two or three most impressive teams I've watched in the early going. That's a testament to Jerry Sloan in part, but the Jazz have a lot of offensive firepower between Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Once Andrei Kirilenko gets it going ... they look like they could top Denver in the Northwest.

See the full Chad Ford chat Insider



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