Mavs 123, Rockets 120: First Impressions

In a comeback as thrilling as it was improbable, the Mavs on Wednesday dug themselves out of a 14-point hole to start the fourth quarter, kept the ball in the hands of Dirk and Monta as they combined for 72 points, managed a handful of key stops, and outscored Houston by a 36-19 margin in the final period to steal a 123-120 victory. First Impressions:

"It would have been easy to drop our heads and stop playing,'' said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, citing his team's 18-point deficit in the third and Houston's relentlessly explosive offense. "But these guys aren't going to do that.''

Hey, maybe it all changed when Rick conducted his smart-ass live-TV interview with Chris Broussard?

"These guys'' were led by Monta Ellis (37 points, eight assists, 13-of-18 shooting) and Dirk Nowitzki (35 points, 13-of-20 shooting), who were the two best players on the floor despite the presence of Rockets standouts James Harden and Dwight Howard. Oh, those two guys were virtually unstoppable, too; but "virtually unstoppable'' doesn't mean it cannot be done.

At the beginning of a fourth quarter that saw some AAC fans understandably head for the exits -- this was a late start on a school night -- the Mavs limited Houston to only three points in the first 5:12. At the end, Dirk strip-blocked Howard inside on a key defensive play. And then Shawn Marion harassed Harden into a missed 3 in the final seconds.

Howard was good for 33 points and 11 rebounds. Harden was good for 23 points and eight assists. But they weren't good enough in the fourth, as the pair combined for just two field goals.
Also critical: Harden -- an outstanding free-thrower -- missed a potential tying charity shot with 8.4 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, Marion countered by scoring five points in 33 seconds at game's end, including the go-ahead 3 on a drive-and-kick pass from Ellis.

That bucket gave Dallas its first lead in this game since the opening minute. ... all of which came after Houston had scored a Mavs-foe season-high 40 points in the first quarter and a Mavs-foe season-high 68 points in the first half.

Defensively, Carlisle said, this game was "a pillow fight.'' But it was also an exercise in staying the course ... in at least swinging around the pillows in conjunction with one another.

"We stayed together as a team,'' Ellis said.

The win required contributions all the way down the rotation, including fuel provided by rookie Shane Larkin, who energized his team with eight points, four rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes in just his second NBA game. (And yes, he's among the many candidates wishing for your vote in "The Dirkie'' balloting.) But most of all, the win required the trademark brilliance of Nowitzki, a truly dominant player in the clutch.

The UberMan passed Reggie Miller here for 15th on the NBA's all-time scoring list. More important to him in the moment, he scored 14 points in the fourth. He did so on 6-of-7 shooting.

Dirk and Ellis made Dallas' offense look "virtually unstoppable,'' too.

"Yeah, we feel like we have a good team,'' Nowitzki said. "I think we have a good team, a deep team and we're going to keep working and see where we can take it."

Most of the time, a team like Dallas with aspirations to make the playoffs -- or, as owner Mark Cuban has said, about making "playoff noise'' -- simply needs to stack up wins, no matter the style and no matter the foe.
But this effort is truly one of the most memorable regular-season games in franchise history in part because it feels weighty. The opponent featured a nemesis in Harden, an unrequited love in Howard, an instate/in-division rival and a powerhouse.

Something else being built: An overall record of 8-4 and a 6-0 record at the AAC.

It had to be a very entertaining game to watch,'' Carlisle said. "From a coaching/playing standpoint, there's a lot of frustrating things that happened because both teams are good. ... But our guys rose above it and got the win. It's huge. Every game you can win is meaningful and it counts in the total at the end of the year."

Yes, yes. But in some ways, the feeling inside the AAC is that this one -- because it was as thrilling as it was improbable -- counted just a little bit more.

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