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Super Sunday

Three intriguing matchups will set stage for playoffs

Posted: Friday March 30, 2007 4:13PM; Updated: Friday March 30, 2007 5:50PM
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Steve Nash and the Suns got the best of Jason Terry and the Mavericks in the last installment of the NBA's best rivalry.
Steve Nash and the Suns got the best of Jason Terry and the Mavericks in the last installment of the NBA's best rivalry.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
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In between the Final Four semis and the NCAA championship game, the NBA will offer a weekend infomercial of its playoffs to come. The most compelling matchups of April, May and June will be previewed by a trio of regular-season games on Sunday:

• Utah at Houston -- in what promises to be the most intriguing matchup of the opening round.

• Miami at Detroit -- in what could be the decisive showdown in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

• Dallas at Phoenix -- in the final pre-playoff installment of the NBA's finest rivalry.

Let's start with the best.

Dallas-Phoenix: No rivalry of the last decade comes closer to reclaiming the spirit and energy of the golden 1980s than the Mavericks-Suns. Not only is it an MVP contest between Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, but it's a clash of styles.

"The Suns are trying to answer the [question] 'Can run-and-gun win?''' says Dallas owner Mark Cuban, adding that Phoenix' score-at-all-costs style is "an equation we gave up on.''

Instead of aiming to outscore opponents as they did in the Don Nelson era, the new Mavs of Avery Johnson try to control tempo, execute their offense and empower their defense. Casual fans will find themselves rooting for the underdog Suns, who will even the season series at 2-2 only by liberating Steve Nash to create hellacious plays in the open floor. The longer that Nash is able to hold viewers' interest, however, the more they'll grow to appreciate the unique style of Nowitzki and his spectacular knack for making the most awkward shots look routine.

"The significance is because of how great the last game was,'' says Cuban, referring to the Suns' 129-127 double-OT win at Dallas on March 14. "If this game is at the same level of excitement, it will establish our games as being some of the most exciting in all of sports. It will be must-watch TV whether regular- or post-season.''

Those who are hoping for a Dallas-Phoenix conference finals had better be pulling for a Suns win this weekend. Since that victory at Dallas the Suns have gone 3-4, and their lead over the Spurs for the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs has dwindled to two games. Maintaining the No. 2 position is crucial on two counts: It enables Phoenix to avoid an enervating first-round matchup with Kobe Bryant's Lakers, and it gives the Suns home court advantage in the second round against the Spurs. Should the Suns drop to No. 3 in the West over their final 11 games, they'll no longer be the favorite to challenge Dallas in the conference finals.

The Mavs, by comparison, have gone 8-0 since losing to Phoenix. They enter Friday's play with a seven-game lead over the Suns, and Nowitzki -- unless he collapses -- should be close to locking up the MVP.

Assuming that these teams rendezvous again in May and June, will the winner of Sunday's game claim any kind of long-term advantage?

"I remember when I was with Miami [as an assistant 1999-2002] and we had another great rivalry with the Knicks,'' says Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, recalling the wisdom of his fellow Heat assistant. "Stan Van Gundy would say that the team that won the last game will probably lose the next game. They'll play harder and win the next game because they're so mad about losing the last one.''

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