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Bell, Suns clinch third straight division title

Mar 21, 2007 - 6:19 AM PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Raja Bell and the Phoenix Suns needed a break. Now, they can celebrate.

Bell scored 22 points and Steve Nash collected 18 and 11 assists as the Suns clinched their third straight Pacific Division title with a 108-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Leandro Barbosa scored 20 points for the Suns (51-16), who have had one of their most successful seasons in team history but are still 4 1/2 games behind Dallas (55-11) for the top spot in the Western Conference and the NBA's best record.

"We are really proud of it, we won three (divisions) in a row and it has never been done," Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I don't think two in a row has been done (by this franchise). The defense was better; we still are obviously working through some stuff."

"This is a piece of the puzzle," Bell said. "It means we've had a good regular season and positioned ourselves well for the playoffs. But the ultimate goal is winning a championship, so we know we have a lot of work to do."

Following a three-day layoff, Phoenix snapped a two-game losing streak, clinching the division on its third try. D'Antoni shuffled the starting lineup, replacing Boris Diaw with Barbosa, to spark his squad.

"I don't know if it worked tonight, who knows?" D'Antoni said. "We did get the pace up. We didn't play exceptionally well the first eight minutes but the pace was good. We want to set the tone and we want to play that way. We got away from it for a while but we have to get back to it."

The Suns used a pair of fourth-quarter runs to secure the victory. With the game tied with 8:42 left in the final period, Phoenix went on a 10-0 run to make it 68-58 with 5:54 remaining on Bell's 3-pointer. The 6-5 guard scored eight points during the spurt.

"We had a lot better energy level than we had the last couple of nights," Bell said. "That kind of caught up with them in the third. Even though we had a high energy level, we weren't executing well and doing the right things all the time. We were playing hard, then we started to play better."

After five straight points by the Timberwolves, the Suns answered with a 14-0 burst, capped by Kurt Thomas' layup to make it 82-63 with 1:49 left.

"Phoenix plays in runs. They're a jump-shooting team," Minnesota interim coach Randy Wittman said. "They can miss four in a row and then make nine out of 10. We just couldn't sustain our level of play after fighting back to four at halftime."

Bell shot 8-of-16 from the field, including 6-of-9 from the arc, and Nash was 7-of-12, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers.

Kevin Garnett had 30 points and 16 rebounds for Minnesota, which shot just 39.5 percent (34-of-86).

"We felt like we were in the game but we had a meltdown," Garnett said. "Sixty-six games into it you think we would know by now. We didn't come together like normal and battle. We sometimes dig ourselves in these holes then get motivated and start to try to get out of it. You can't do that against good teams."

With their third straight loss, the Timberwolves (28-38) now are 2 1/2 games behind Golden State (32-37) and the Los Angeles Clippers (31-36) for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

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