The new-look Dallas Mavericks rolled up their sleeves, got physical and put on another defensive clinic Wednesday night.
Going against a Houston team that scores points in waves, the Mavs used some more grit and determination to eke out a 88-86 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 20,108 at American Airlines Center.
It was the fifth consecutive win for the No. 7-seeded Mavs (40-38) and increased their lead over the No. 9 Rockets (38-40) to two games. It also was the fifth straight time the Mavs have held an opponent under 90 points, as a Dallas team with a history of zipping up and down the court and trying to merely outscore opponents has suddenly turned into a defensive monster.
“It’s a style change and it’s a style of play that is characterized by sacrifice,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Because when you take longer possessions on offense and commit to tempo-ing the game, you’re going to have some more difficult shots.”
The Mavs had more than their share of difficult shots as they hoisted up many with the 24-second shot clock about to expire. But while the Mavs were not spectacular on offense, their defense was awe-inspiring.
Especially down the stretch.
As the Mavs were clinging to a 86-85 lead, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden came barreling down the left side of the lane through traffic. But just before Harden could rise up and get off a shot, Dirk Nowitzki reached in and stripped him with 5.8 seconds remaining in the game.
Harden then fouled Devin Harris, who popped in a pair of free throws with 5.4 seconds left to pad the Mavs’ lead to 88-85.
Then, following a Rockets timeout, Carlisle had his team intentionally foul Jason Terry with 2.6 seconds to go, thus preventing the Rockets from attempting a 3-pointer that could have sent the game into overtime.
Terry made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second one. And as the ball was on the verge of going out of bounds, Wesley Matthews lunged, grabbed it and had the presence of mind to flick it in the backcourt as time expired.
“He made the best deflection and save at the end of the game I’ve ever seen in 32 and 11/12th [years] I’ve seen in an NBA season,” Carlisle said. “Because you give these guys the ball with 0.2 seconds, they will get it in the hole as they did at the end of the third quarter.
“Wes’ save took us out of another Harden catch and another Russian roulette defensive possession with the ball in that guy’s hands, so a lot of credit to our guys. Blood and guts game all the way and we lived to fight another day.”
Matthews knew Terry was going to miss the second free throw on purpose, so he got himself in position to make a play.
“I saw that when they subbed they didn’t have any timeouts left, so they were banking on getting an offensive rebound and going right back up,” said Matthews, who scored 16 points. “And so I saw the ball go long and going out of bounds, and that’s not the kind of team you want to give another shot, so [it was] just instinct to get that thing out of there.”
The gritty Mavs won despite Nowitzki scoring only seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“One of the reasons Dirk is having a hard time getting open looks is because we’re playing a different style right now,” Carlisle said. “These guys are draped all over him like an ugly suit every night.
“During certain parts of the game we’re speeding it up some, but right now we’re a grinding team trying to move up. We’re trying to move up and our guys are committed and that’s all you can ask of them.”
J.J. Barea continued his hot streak as he led the Mavs with a game-high 27 points on 10 of 16 shots. Fresh off being named the Western Conference Player of the Week for his performances in the Mavs’ 4-0 span, Barea nailed 4 of 7 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and kept the Rockets defenders guessing all night.
Barea scored 17 of his points in the first half when the Mavs led 52-44. Then, Harden took over in the fourth quarter when he tallied 12 of his 26 points and helped engineer a Houston comeback.
But Barea’s three-point play tied the game at 85-all with 3:06 left. And the next few moments belonged to rookie forward Justin Anderson, who split a pair of free throws to give the Mavs the lead for good with 2:51 left.
And as Houston’s Trevor Ariza was darting inside for a layup, Anderson flew out of nowhere and blocked his shot with 1:35 remaining to preserve the Mavs’ one-point lead.
On holding Harden to 8-of-22 shooting, Matthews said: “You can’t really stop a guy like that individually. It was a team effort.
“Justin made a huge play, Dirk made a huge play and I was just trying to make it as difficult as possible for him. He’s a hell of a scorer, hell of a player, but it was either them or us.”
The Mavs are making the game ugly for both teams, but thriving it the aftermath. With starters Chandler Parsons (season-ending right knee surgery) and Deron Williams (out indefinitely with a sport hernia) sidelined, the Mavs are doing whatever is takes, including slowing down the game.
“I just addressed this with the team and we’ve got to understand what all this is,” Carlisle said of the new plan of attack. “It’s given us a strategy that can be effective and we’re going to have to keep adjusting in the games here and there as it’s happening.
“The important thing is to get yourself in a position to win, and we’ve been able to do that. I’m proud of our guys for being willing to be really the ultimate team guys to play this way.”
With this new defensive style, the Mavs held Houston to only six points in the final 9:15. The Rockets also only scored three times in their final 16 possessions.
This was a Rockets team that entered Wednesday’s game fourth in the NBA in scoring with 106 points per game. But the Mavs were tenacious and physical and ... all things they’re not accustomed to being.
“We did a good job slowing it down a little bit on offense,” Barea said. “Even though we were taking bad shots at the end of the shot clock, that helps us set up our defense.
“They like to run fast, take quick threes and we were able to slow it down.”
Carlisle said this slow-down style will continue Friday night when the Mavs host the Memphis Grizzlies.
“That game may be in the 50s,” Carlisle said. “They are physical and they are going to snort in your face on defense and they’re going to bring it to you on offense.
“We’ve got to be ready for another throw-down on Friday.”