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Wolves' playoff drive skids

Phoenix puts an end to Minnesota's four-game winning streak

By Brian Hamilton

Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHOENIX -- With a little less than nine minutes left Friday night, Sam Cassell skipped onto the America West Arena floor after a timeout, hopping from the bench to the opposite baseline, a smile tattooed onto his face. He had just hit two buckets in a row to give the Timberwolves a lead early in the period. He felt some fourth-quarter magic brewing.

And then off the Phoenix bench arose the antidote: the mop-haired, mouse-quiet, bland-as-bread Steve Nash, the only guy without a catchy nickname in the Suns' pregame introductions. Probably because "M-V-P" would be a little presumptuous.

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Yet you will get no arguments from the Wolves on that count following a 107-98 loss Friday night, their five-game winning streak cut short by the scissor marks Nash left on their defense. He scored 12 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter, and two of his 11 assists produced six game-sealing points late.

And thus the Wolves (38-35) dropped three games behind Memphis and Denver, winners Friday, in the race for the Western Conference's final playoff spot.

"Steve likes to score 14, 15 points and get 13 assists," said Cassell, who finished with 15 points. "We can't let him do both. Tonight he did both, and that's why they were victorious."

The Wolves might want to shore that up if a playoff rematch is in store. Nash finished the season series against the Wolves with four-game averages of 21.3 points and 11.5 assists on 57 percent shooting. It is the sort of floor leadership the former Western Conference finalists enjoyed a year ago, and the type the Suns, now 55-17 and atop the conference standings, have ridden all season.

So, all that MVP talk?

"I believe it. He's that good," Wolves guard Trenton Hassell said. "This is the same team that didn't win that many games last year (29). Now they're the No. 1 team in the league, and he's really the only new addition, other than (Quentin Richardson). So you've got to give it to him."

The Wolves certainly did. Cassell scored seven points early in the fourth quarter, but Nash followed with seven of 12 in one stretch, including a three-point play over Cassell for a four-point lead with 5:27 to go. After an Eddie Griffin go-ahead three-pointer, Nash answered with his own three 19 seconds later. Two possessions later, he broke down the Wolves' defense, and his kickout (plus one more pass) led to a Richardson three-pointer and a 98-94 Suns lead with three minutes left.

And then the double-daggers: Following a missed Cassell three-pointer, Nash penetrated and found Joe Johnson in the corner for yet another trifecta, the Suns' fifth of the fourth quarter. Then he fed Marion for a dunk plus a foul with 1:30 left, leading to a decisive 104-95 lead.

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"I tried to put some pressure on the defense and open things up," Nash said. "Sometimes I get too pass-oriented. But ... I felt like I really wanted to lead by example and keep being aggressive and confident, and hopefully it pushes us over the hump."

They did need a two-handed shove. The Wolves' defense held the Suns to 33 percent shooting during the second and third quarters, building a six-point lead. But then came Nash, and the five three-pointers in the fourth quarter and a buffet of food for thought should these teams meet again.

"We had the pace where we needed it to be for a while. They just kind of got it up on us," Wolves coach Kevin McHale said. "We had chances. We were there. But they made some shots at the crucial times."

Wally Szczerbiak led the Wolves with 18 points off the bench, while Kevin Garnett, battling foul trouble, added 15 points and 15 rebounds.

Notes: Garnett was selected the Western Conference player of the month for March. ... Nash's team-record 13-game string of double-digit assist games is the longest since Mark Jackson's 14-game streak for Denver in 1996-97. ... Phoenix was 6-of-22 from the field and scored 16 points in the second quarter.

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