DALLAS - It sounds strange for a team that’s won nine straight and lost its only game in the last six weeks on an iffy goaltending call, but the Suns are eager to find out exactly how good they are today.
After rambling through a cushy February schedule with only one hiccup, a home loss to Minnesota on Feb. 6, with a roster that is still very much under construction, the Suns run up against a rare bird in the NBA — a team with a better record, that is just as hot as they are — when they meet the Mavericks in a nationally televised battle here.
“I wouldn’t overplay it because we’ve still got a ways to go and we’re not as good as we’re going to be,” Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We still have to get (new Sun Tim Thomas) worked into the lineup and we don’t have Amaré (Stoudemire) back, so we have a lot of work to do.
“But this is a good test against arguably the best team in the NBA. It certainly has our attention.”
Probably because the Suns have scores to settle on several fronts:
• They are 0-2 against Dallas this season, including a 111-108 loss in the season opener when they frittered away a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and a five-point lead with 36 seconds left in the first overtime.
The Suns also lost 102-96 in Dallas when a team without Leandro Barbosa and James Jones shot 38 percent from the field. “And guess what? If we shoot 38 percent again, we’ll lose again,” D’Antoni said.
• They are 1-4 against the three teams with better records than them — Detroit, Dallas and San Antonio — but still have five games left against that trio and a chance to turn that record around.
• And as far as ABC goes, the last time the Suns were on free TV (Jan. 29), they were up 17 points on Cleveland in the third quarter before icing up and crumbling 113-106 under the weight of 46 points by LeBron James.
The Suns are averaging 116 points during this winning streak, but their defense continues to feel the loss of Kurt Thomas in the middle. Orlando shot 60 percent from the field for the first 44 minutes Friday before Phoenix locked down on defense and outscored the Magic 16-4 down the stretch to pull out a 123-118 win.
“We were looking to dissect the film and point out mistakes, but they just made shots,” D’Antoni said. “It was a lot like the Charlotte game (when the Bobcats scored 121 and lost by 15 on Jan. 25.) We tried to make them take jump shots, we did, and they made them.
“You can’t expect in March to have 48 minutes of playoff intensity all the time. We had it for three or four minutes against Orlando and the defense did the job. We turned it up a notch.”
The Suns need to leave that extra notch in place today. Dallas has won 16 straight at home, where they are 27-4 this season, but are still seething after a 98-89 loss in San Antonio Thursday that has them tied with the Spurs for the Southwest Division and Western Conference lead.
D’Antoni loved what he saw offensively out of Tim Thomas, who hit 5-of-8 3-point attempts and scored 20 points in 19 minutes Friday in his Suns debut. But Thomas also showed a lot of rust on defense and was on the stationary bike after practice Saturday, working on his basketball stamina.
Thomas was set up for a lot of open shots by the two-headed assist monster of Steve Nash and Boris Diaw, which combined for 24 assists — seven of them to Thomas.
“I’m just happy to be in a basketball environment like this,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know Boris could pass that well and with Steve, it’s unbelievable . . . you always have to keep your eyes open and your hands ready.”
Diaw continues to play fantastic basketball and push his candidacy for the league’s most improved player. His 18-point, nine-rebound, 11-assist effort came in 39 minutes, all of it at the center spot. There were times when he appeared to give up good inside shots to pass out for 3-pointers, but D’Antoni is trusting Diaw to make the right decision.
“That guy is just a ballplayer. He’s making everyone better,” D’Antoni said. “He has a unique game and I’m not sure if his basketball IQ isn’t better than the guys trying to figure it all out on the bench. He’s on the floor, he has a better feel for things, and we’ll go with that.”
BONUS SHOTS: The Suns, the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team, are sending a team-autographed basketball to Jason McElwain, the autistic high school senior who made national news by hitting six 3-pointers in four minutes in his only varsity appearance for Greece Athena High School in Rochester, N.Y.
Texas-sized win streak
The Suns will go for a season-high 10th straight win today in Dallas against the Mavericks. That would move them within four of the franchise record set in 1992. They already have two of the top 13 streaks in team history this season:
14 12/1/92-12/30/92 11 3/20/97-4/10/97 11 3/23/93-4/11/93 11 12/5/04-12/26/04 10 1/9/90-1/25/90 10 3/27/98-4/15/98
9 2/08/06-3/03/06 9 11/22/05-12/9/05
9 11/16/04-12/01/04 9 11/27/91-12/13/91 9 2/07/90-2/27/90 9 3/30/89-4/19/89 9 12/08/79-12/26/79
Suns at Mavericks
When: 1:30 p.m. today
Where: American Airlines Center
TV: Ch. 15
Radio: KTAR (620 AM)
Records: Suns 40-17, Mavericks 46-12
Line: Mavericks by 3 1 /2
Series history: Dallas has won 11 of the past 17 regular season meetings, including the first two this season (Dallas and Detroit are the only two teams Phoenix has yet to beat this year). The Mavericks wiped out a 17-point Phoenix lead to win the Nov. 1 season opener in double overtime (111-108), then beat an injury-riddled Suns lineup 102-96 in Dallas on Dec. 14. The last time Phoenix beat Dallas was Game 6 of the 2005 Western Conference semifinals, when they eliminated the Mavericks 4-2.
Scouting report: Suns — Phoenix shoots for a season-high 10-game winning streak this year but steps up in class. They haven’t played a team with a better record since beating San Antonio at home on Jan. 7. Over the past 24 games, the Suns have averaged 11 3-pointers a game, the total they had in the second half of Friday’s come-from-behind win over Orlando. James Jones will start despite a painful left toe, but expect Tim Thomas to see a lot of time with the top unit as well. Leandro Barbosa leads the NBA in 3-point percentage (.469) after hitting all three of his attempts against the Magic.
Mavericks — Dallas is 27-4 at home this year (second only to Detroit’s 26-2) and has won 16 straight at home. Both Keith Van Horn (left knee) and Josh Howard (hamstring) were injured in Friday’s 90-76 win over Charlotte. Van Horn is likely out but Howard and Devon Harris, who has missed three games with a thigh injury, should be ready today. Dallas is 6-2 against last year’s conference finalists (Detroit, Miami, Phoenix and San Antonio).