Daily Confidential

The Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns met in the Western Conference finals last season, and expected to contend for the NBA title again this year. Right now, though, both clubs are simply trying to break out of their early season funks.

The teams, which combined to win 114 regular-season games a season ago, meet at US Airways Center in Phoenix on Thursday.

The Mavericks (0-4) defeated the Suns (1-4) in six games in the conference finals last season, before losing to Miami in six games in the NBA finals.

Dallas tied a club record last season with 60 wins, but is winless through the first four games of a season for the first time in the franchise's 27-year history. The Mavericks are also the first team since the 2001-02 Philadelphia 76ers to start out with four straight losses after playing in the NBA finals the previous year.

They lost to the Los Angeles Clippers 103-85 on Wednesday, and will try to avoid their first five-game losing skid since losing six in a row from Feb. 29-March 9, 2000.

Against the Clippers, Dallas had a halftime lead for the third time this season, but was outscored 60-35 in the second half.

``We are disappointed. It is a tough start for us,'' Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. ``We aren't playing good defense for long stretches of the game and we aren't playing good offense. We are just playing in waves. We are playing 26 minutes of a 48-minute game, and that is not very good basketball.''

Jason Terry led Dallas with 23 points on Wednesday. Dirk Nowitzki added 19 points on 7-for-20 shooting and 12 rebounds, and is averaging 22.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season.

Nowitzki averaged 28.6 points and 12.7 rebounds in 10 total games against Phoenix last season, including a 50-point effort in Dallas' 117-101 victory in Game 5 of the conference finals.

The Suns and Mavericks split their four regular-season meetings in 2005-06. Dallas has won six of its last 10 games at US Airways Center.

Phoenix, which has lost in the Western Conference finals the last two years, is enduring its worst start since losing the first 13 games of the 1996-97 season.

The Suns dropped their third straight game on Wednesday, a 111-106 overtime loss to San Antonio in which Phoenix led by nine points with 5:28 left in regulation.

``We had a great shot at winning this game,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. ``This was definitely a disappointing loss for our team. I consider tonight to be the first of many baby steps to be taken throughout the season.''

The Suns have had trouble holding leads all season, blowing leads of 19, 15 and nine points in their other losses.

Steve Nash finished with 20 points and 11 assists against the Spurs, his fifth double-double in as many games. The two-time NBA MVP is averaging 20 points and 11.6 assists this season.

Amare Stoudemire, who missed all but three games last season because of knee surgery, made his first start of 2005-06 on Wednesday. Stoudemire finished with 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting in 15 minutes before fouling out. He had scored seven points - all on free throws - off the bench over his previous two games.

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