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Game 5 winners will advance their causes

Page 2 of 2 -- Moaned Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, ''It's very disappointing to be in a position to go up, 3-1, going home and see such unaggressive, sloppy, uninspired play." That about covers it.

This is the third straight year the Spurs were up, 2-0, in the conference semis and then lost Games 3 and 4. The two previous years, it was against the Lakers; they won in 2003 and lost in 2004.

The Sonics can be a royal pain if their shooters are shooting, which they were Sunday. Jerome James and Danny Fortson are banging inside as well, although neither could be construed to be a scoring threat. Nonetheless, the Spurs, the pick of many people to win it all, are on a bit of a skid (after winning six in a row). Duncan played well in Game 4 but had little help. Brent Barry was brutal in the two losses (in one of his many former haunts). The article of faith in the NBA is that the better team usually wins a seven-game series. The Spurs, like the Pistons, are still that team, even if they occasionally have trouble showing it.

PHOENIX-DALLAS (tomorrow night at America West Arena): This is easily the most entertaining of the three series. You have one team, the Suns, that committed the fewest fouls in the league this year in part because fouling messes up their preferred pace. You have the Mavericks, whose style of play in any other year would be worshipped. This year, though, it's merely Phoenix Lite.

The key for the Suns could well be Joe Johnson, whose absence hurts in so many ways. The Phoenix starters are all logging heavy minutes, and the Mavs think that eventually might wear them down. Johnson helped run the team when Steve Nash took a break; there's no one to do that now. There's no word on Johnson's return, either, although he was due to be fitted for a mask yesterday to protect his repaired orbital bone.

Dallas, meanwhile, might get a bump with the possible return of Keith Van Horn. But the Mavs' plight in this series has mirrored that of their oft-maligned center, Erick Dampier. In the two wins, he averaged 14 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and shot 78 percent from the field in 29.5 minutes. In the two losses, he averaged 2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1 block, and shot 33 percent in 14 minutes. If Dampier can stay on the floor, that means Amare Stoudemire doesn't look like a young Wilt Chamberlain all of the time. 

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