PHOENIX -- The Suns had the mentality that Tuesday night's game against the Mavericks was extremely important to their playoff hopes, or even a must-win considering they were facing a Mavericks team that they're looking to catch in the standings.
They played like it, too: for a while. But a flat second half and a hot Dirk Nowitzki sent Phoenix to their fifth consecutive loss, which leaves the Suns five games out of the eighth and final playoff spot with just 18 games remaining in the regular season.
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Phoenix had their chances, and overcame a hot start from J.J. Barea, who led Dallas with 14 points at halftime. The Suns led the game by four at the break, however, thanks to a big second quarter run that was sparked by Jason Richardson.
After trailing 46-42, J-Rich checked in and scored nine points in a little over two minutes, which helped the Suns go on a 12-4 run and take a four-point lead which they carried into halftime.
The third quarter was all Dallas, headlined by a huge performance from Dirk Nowitzki. He had 15 points in the period, and was basically unstoppable against the defense of the undersized Matt Barnes. When the third quarter had ended, Dallas had turned their four-point deficit into a five-point lead, and never trailed the rest of the game.
Nowitzki finished with 34 points and 13 rebounds, and may have helped finish off the Suns' playoff chances as well.
Alvin Gentry attempted to say otherwise afterwards, and stressed how there are still 18 games left and that his team intends to play them all and see what happens.
"This wasn't the difference in us being in the playoffs and not," Gentry said. "It's a tough loss, and this is obviously the team that we're chasing. But they have a tough schedule, and we've got a lot of games that we can win."
Gentry basically chalked this one up to Nowitzki making tough shots, which he definitely did several times throughout the game. He repeatedly mentioned that his team wasn't losing for a lack of effort, but Steve Nash felt differently, at least as far as the way the team played in the second half.
"We came out, I thought, in the first half and were decent and had a lot of room for improvement, and came out really flat in the second half and I can't explain why," Nash said. "I felt that our [play] in the second half wasn't nearly up to where it could have been; with very little concentration we could have improved a lot. I thought we would have had a little more fire in the second half."
Nash went on to discuss the team's defensive shortcomings, and mentioned how he feels the Suns need to play with more of a sense of desperation early in the game to take some of the pressure off of the defense.
"We've got to try to get a cushion and a lead and be more desperate earlier in the game," Nash said. "We've got to get ourselves a cushion to play with and not always be down a few points and tying the game up, and then them making shots. We're not going to be able to be the best defensive team in the league: one, we're not, two, we're not big enough. We've got to find a way offensively for that to be our defense."
Shaquille O'Neal was equally disappointed, and may have summed up the team's dwindling playoff hopes the best.
"We've got 18 games left, and we've got to damn near win 'em all, and see what happens," O'Neal said.