Apparently, all the ugly drama surrounding the departure of point guard Rajon Rondo weighed too heavily on the Dallas Mavericks and was simply too much for them to overcome Friday night.
James Harden poured in a playoff career-high 42 points and the Houston Rockets rallied from a 13-point deficit, then held on to defeat the Mavs 130-128 before a sellout crowd of 20,651 at American Airlines Center.
The win enabled the Rockets to take a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven first-round playoff series. No team in NBA history has ever climbed out of a 3-0 hole to win a series, and that’s the challenge facing the Mavs.
Game 4 will be back at American Airlines Center at 8 p.m. Sunday, with the Mavs hoping to avoid the embarrassment of a 4-0 sweep.
Playing without injured small forward Chandler Parsons, the Mavs fought back from a 112-101 deficit with 8:11 left, and had a chance to tie — or win — at the end. But after the Mavs called timeout with 6.7 seconds left, Monta Ellis hit nothing but the right side of the backboard with a 20-footer as time expired.
“We were getting the ball to Dirk [Nowitzki] and then Monta,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “And he made one great play, and then we didn’t get a great shot on it. So that’s on me.”
The Mavs parted ways Wednesday with Rondo — Carlisle said he had a back injury. With that serving as a backdrop, it probably was asking too much for the players to focus on a red-hot Houston team that is now 6-1 against Dallas this season.
The Mavs couldn’t slow a Rockets team that scored 42 points in the first quarter, 65 in each half, and made 13 of 24 attempts from behind the 3-point line.
“We’ve got to find areas to stay motivated, stay in tune, and stay competitive,” center/forward Amar’e Stoudemire said. “It’s not easy.”
It apparently wasn’t easy, either, for Carlisle to watch his team get physically manhandled by the Rockets.
“We are scrambling like hell defensively and Devin Harris is going to get the ball, then Dwight Howard throws him into our bench and then takes the ball and skips it over the top and [Trevor] Ariza gets a wide-open 3,” Carlisle said. “So instead of us getting the ball and a foul on Howard, it turns into essentially a five-to-six point swing.
“That stuff has got to stop. The officials have to get that stuff under control, because there’s too much physical stuff going on — Howard throwing people all over the place.”
Harden and Ellis each scored 12 points as the Rockets led 42-36 at the end of a wild first quarter that featured no defense by either team. It’s the most points ever allowed by the Mavs in the first quarter of a postseason game.
But with Al-Farouq Aminu, J.J. Barea, Harris and Stoudemire supplying energy off the bench, the Mavs kept soaring until they led 72-59 with 1:08 to go before halftime.
The Mavs, however, couldn’t locate the basket after halftime as Houston sprinted to a 29-10 run to go up 88-82 late in the third period.
After shooting just 9 of 28 from the floor in the first two games, Harden was a healthy 15 of 24 from the field Friday, including 5 of 7 on 3-pointers. The Mavs had no answer for one of the game’s best players.
“We changed the coverage on him to take some of the other easy baskets by other guys out of it,” Carlisle said. “And so he’s going to be turned loose for a few more shots.
“We’ll keep looking at it and we’ll keep adjusting. You can’t give a great player like that the same looks all the time.”
Ellis and Nowitzki scored 34 points apiece for the Mavs, who shot 52.3 percent and turned the ball over only 10 times. But Dallas couldn’t contain Harden (nine assists) and Howard (13 points, 26 rebounds).
Carlisle even resorted to Hack-a-Howard on two occasions. But the player the Mavs desperately tried to sign during free agency two summers ago made 3 of 4 free throws.
Runners by Corey Brewer, dunks by Howard and Smith, and pull-up jumpers by Harden demoralized the Mavs, who had too much on their plate to overcome the Rockets.
“Obviously, Game 3s are very important when you’re down 0-2, so we had our chance to win,” Stoudemire said. “The opportunity slipped away from us, but we’ve got to get ready for Game 4.”
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760