for this game

Nowitzki, Mavericks hold off late push by Suns

Dec 20, 2007 - 7:06 AM DALLAS (Ticker) -- Even though it's only December, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks made an early statement.

Nowitzki played with visible passion, scoring 31 points as the Mavericks avoided a fourth-quarter collapse en route to their fourth straight win, 108-105, over the rival Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.

"I kept being aggressive," Nowitzki said. "I made some shots, missed some shots but, down the stretch, it's all about believing in yourself, believing in your teammates. You've got to get the job done somehow, and they kept coming. We had a six- or seven-point lead, and they kept coming. It's all about staying confident and trying to make plays for your teammates."

Josh Howard scored 23 points for the Mavericks, who nearly blew a 14-point advantage in the final period and dodged a wide-open 3-pointer by Steve Nash on the game's final possession.

"We were fortunate down the stretch when they got that open three to tie it," Nowitzki said. "We got a little fortunate but the energy was great."

Dallas led, 96-82, with 7:09 left in the fourth quarter before Phoenix stormed back in the game on the back of Amare Stoudemire, who scored 14 of his 25 points in the final 12 minutes.

"It's all about how you finish," Stoudemire said. "We gave a strong effort there at the end."

The All-Star center converted a three-point play with 8.5 seconds left, powering in a jump hook over Nowitzki and nailing a free throw to make it 106-105.

"It's always a battle," Stoudemire said. "It's always a well-fought game. We feel comfortable about where we stand. I think we could have gotten a win tonight."

But Nowitzki then nailed two free throws with 7.3 ticks left to provide the final margin. The Suns had one final chance and put the ball in their two-time MVP's hands.

Nash's pump-fake got Jason Terry in the air but, after one dribble, his shot from the arc did not catch iron as the ball bounded away and time expired.

Nowitzki flashed his trademark sneer throughout a contest that had a postseason feel nearly five months before the playoffs will begin. The reigning league MVP shot 10-of-20 from the field.

More importantly, Dallas proved that it still is one of the elite teams in the West.

"It's always good to win against them," Nowitzki said. "It was a good win. I thought the intensity was good on both sides. I thought the atmosphere was great. It was a great early test for December, and we're glad we pulled out the win."

Many pundits called for the breakup of the 67-win club from last season, which was shocked in the first round of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors.

It all boiled over to this campaign for the Mavericks, who already have suffered setbacks to the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks in 2007-08 while looking sluggish and disinterested.

"A lot of people think we're struggling for some strange reason," Howard said. "We're just focusing on ourselves as a team trying to get better."

But losers of two straight to the Suns, including a double-overtime thriller at the American Airlines Center last season, the Mavericks outrebounded them, 49-35, and opened a 17-point advantage in the first half to secure the victory.

"Overall, I think we played a great game," Howard said. "(Erick Dampier) and Dirk gave us a big lift in the first quarter, and I think that carried us for the whole game."

"Well, we got into it a couple of times, and you've got to give them credit, too," Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said. "(The Mavericks were the aggressors at first (in) the game then we picked it up, and we came all the way back and couldn't quite get over the hump."

Nash collected 21 points and 18 assists for Phoenix, which split its consecutive games with NBA powerhouses San Antonio and Dallas.