Phoenix 129, Dallas 127 (2OT)

DALLAS, March 14 (AP) -- When the second overtime began in a game that already had plenty of thrills, Amare Stoudemire was ready to settle things.

So he went to the basket. Hard.

Between points and fouls that got Dallas Mavericks starters disqualified, Stoudemire's strong start got the Phoenix Suns going toward a 129-127 victory Wednesday night in a tense, thrilling game between the league's two best teams.

"He's a great finisher,'' marveled teammate Steve Nash. "That was quite a performance.''

Stoudemire had 41 points and 10 rebounds, and Nash played like a two-time MVP down the stretch. He scored 10 points in the final minute of regulation, capped by a tying 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left. He finished with 32 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds.

Jerry Stackhouse scored 33 points, his most in three seasons with Dallas, and Dirk Nowitzki added 30 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. He had eight points and seven rebounds in the third quarter, when the Mavs turned what had been a 16-point deficit into a 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter.

Phoenix rallied by opening the fourth by making eight straight shots and 10-of-12. While that set up Nash's great finish, four missed free throws by Dallas - including two by Nowitzki - were equally important.

The Mavericks remained shaky at the start of overtime, then Jason Terry scored five points in the final 48 seconds, including a long 3 over Nash with 4.5 seconds to go that the second OT.

Stoudemire helped Phoenix take it from there, although it still took a missed 8-footer by Nowitzki as time expired to end Dallas' 23-game home winning streak and tighten the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.

"This was a big game. We aren't going to try to downplay it,'' Stackhouse said. "It was a little disappointing not to get the win but we'll bounce back.''

The Suns won their sixth straight and 11th in 12 games, moving them within 2+ games of the Mavericks for the best record in the league.

Dallas seemed like a lock for the top spot just a few days ago, when a 17-game winning streak prompted talk of 70 wins for the season.

But now the Mavs have dropped consecutive games for the first time since their 0-4 start. This was their first home loss since Dec. 7.

"They might not lose two more the rest of the season,'' Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said.

The Suns have 18 games left and the Mavs have 19. The clubs meet again April 1 in Phoenix, with the Dallas leading the season series 2-1.

The top seed in the West is worth much more than bragging rights. In addition to the home-court advantage in every round, there's also a better draw; whichever team doesn't get No. 1 likely will be on course to meet the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.

No wonder both teams played as if this was more than just another game.

"That was a playoff atmosphere,'' Stoudemire said. "Both teams played with high intensity. Both teams were in it until the end. We definitely wanted to win but we also want to improve.''

By game's end, these weren't the same Mavericks.

Josh Howard and Erick Dampier fouled out early in the second overtime, Devin Harris was hurt in the second quarter and Devean George missed the game with an injury.

The calls that got Howard and Dampier tossed were booed loudly by a season-high crowd of 20,525. Then Nowitzki got a technical foul for arguing a non-call. Stackhouse had a bigger beef about a missed foul soon after - but didn't dare say anything.

When Nowitzki's last try missed and he wound up on the ground, a building that had been buzzing all night went eerily silent, as if no one was sure it was really over. Then there were some boos at officials, with Mavs owner Mark Cuban seemingly making a hurried exit.

Terry had 27 points, five assists, five rebounds - and five turnovers, including one in the final half-minute of the second overtime. Howard scored 19 points and Dampier had eight points with 11 rebounds; amazingly, all were on the offensive end.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the NBA started tracking the category in 1973-74, only two other players had at least 11 offensive rebounds in a game in which they gathered none on the defensive end: Bill Laimbeer (11 for the Pistons on Jan 9, 1993) and Popeye Jones (12 for the Mavericks on March 10, 1994).

Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa, who missed a potential winner at the end of the first OT, scored 17 points before fouling out. Shawn Marion had 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Raja Bell scored 11 points.

Stoudemire made 16 of 19 shots. His dominance inside reminded the Suns how badly they could've used him against Dallas in the Western Conference finals last year.

"He was unstoppable,'' D'Antoni said. "He had a little sore back, a little muscle cramp or something in the first half. ... But, man, did he rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter.''

So did Nash and Nowitzki, the good friends, former teammates and MVP front-runners.

The game ended with Nash rebounding Nowitzki's miss. Overall, though, both made plenty of big plays and had their share of regrettable ones.

There were several 1-on-1 matchups, too, with Nowitzki getting the best of them in the overtimes. Earlier, Nash scooped a left-handed layup around the big German, prompting Nowitzki to tell officials he was elbowed. Nowitzki later smiled as he recommended a technical foul against Nash for complaining about a non-call.

Midway through the fourth, Nowitzki dribbled around Nash and no one else was between him and the basket, so he sped up and threw down a dunk about as hard as he ever does.

Notes: The same "impostors'' Dallas coach Avery Johnson said he saw while watching tape of the loss to Golden State on Monday night seemed to be back on the court for the Mavs in the first quarter. They had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (five) and allowed 32 points. ... Phoenix's James Jones went 3-for-3 on 3s in the second quarter, but finished with just those nine points. ... George missed the game because of a flare-up of a knee injury. The Mavs plan to be extra cautious with George the rest of the regular season in hopes he'll be ready for the playoffs.

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