It was vintage Dirk Nowitzki at the American Airlines Center on Friday.
He was hitting from near and far, turnarounds and one-handers — while going 11 for 11 from the free-throw line en route to a team-high-tying 34 points.
It was the first 30-point game for the 16-year veteran since Dec. 31.
But it wasn’t enough.
The Rockets won 130-128 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the first-round Western Conference series.
“That’s the Great Nowitzki,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He is unbelievable. Unbelievable heart. Unbelievable everything. At one point, he wasn’t having a great shot-making night, but he just hung in. We weren’t able to give him the kind of rest we would like. But we had no choice.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale was just as impressed with the 36-year-old Nowitzki, who began the game shooting 1 of 5 and had 10 points at halftime before erupting for 24 points in the second half on 6-of-11 shooting.
“He was great,” McHale said. “He is a great player. He is a Hall of Fame guy. He has championship blood going through those veins. He wasn’t going to quit.”
As well as Nowitzki played, it’s easy to second-guess Carlisle’s decision to put the ball in the hands of Monta Ellis for the final shot. But Ellis had 34 points on the night as well and hit the shot with 8.8 seconds left to make the score 129-128.
After Corey Brewer made one of two free-throw attempts, Ellis missed badly at the buzzer.
“There are a million things afterward that go through your mind after a loss,” Nowitzki said. “I don’t allow myself to question the coach. Monte has been great. We’ve lived with his results the last two years being our clutch guy. He has been great in that situation. They forced him into a tough shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t go in.”
Nowitzki called it one of his toughest playoff losses, and he takes no solace in his great performance or his team’s valiant play.
“Not yet,” Nowitzki said about taking pride in the effort. “It was a game we needed to have.
“It was a fun game to be part of. Shot-making all over place. We fought back all game. We kept coming back and kept plugging. We had a chance to tie at the buzzer. It ranks up there in tough playoff losses I’ve had in my long playoff career. It was a tough one.”
Already without Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons and playing with an injured Devin Harris, the Mavericks lost two more players in Game 3.
Guard Raymond Felton, who started in place of Rondo, pulled his hamstring and forward Richard Jefferson suffered a calf injury.
“They were going down left and right,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Felton pulled his hamstring and RJ pulled something in his calf. So we are losing manpower. But guys are fighting their tails off. I love it. We are going to be fighting our tails off on Sunday.”
Rockets center Dwight Howard has had a rough couple of seasons in Houston because of injuries. But he has been back to his dominant ways in the series against the Mavericks.
He was especially effective on boards in Game 3 with 26 rebounds to go with 13 points and two blocks.
Carlisle said Howard looks like the guy they tried to sign as a free agent two years ago before losing out to the Rockets.
“Yeah, he looks great right now,” Carlisle said. “Conditioning-wise he looks like he’s all there.”
Clarence E. Hill Jr.