At American Airlines Center on Sunday night, first they confiscated the Houston brooms.
Then the Dallas Mavericks’ defense vacuumed up the Rockets.
That’s right — the defense. The Mavericks’ heretofore overwhelmed defense.
Or, as the Rockets saw it and abused it for the first three games of this best-of-seven series, Highway 41 or 11 or whatever Mavericks jersey number that had tried to stop James Harden, Dwight Howard and Company.
In the first three games of the series, Houston had scored 118, 111 and 130 points. No team in the NBA playoffs had averaged more than the Rockets or had a higher field goal percentage (.470).
Most of that favorable percentage was the product of the Rockets — Howard, in particular — operating at will within 10 feet of the basket.
But Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had a plan, the kind of set-your-hair-afire plan that a team down three games to none can come up with.
First, he marginalized the men with whistles. Carlisle used his postgame press conference after Game 3 to chastise the officials because Howard was “throwing guys all over the place.”
He really wasn’t exaggerating all that much.
In Sunday’s Game 4, Carlisle continued his scheme by starting J.J. Barea at point guard and Al-Farouq Aminu as his primary defensive stopper.
Barea provided the pace. Aminu added the defensive clutter.
The Mavericks added it all up, including Monta Ellis’ 31 points and a combined 69 team points over the middle two quarters, and they held on to defeat the Rockets 121-109.
It’s true. As chanting, red-clad Houston fans tried to enter the AAC on Sunday, security employees informed them that brooms, like umbrellas, were on the list of prohibited items.
The symbolism was not lost on the Mavericks.
Still needing one victory to clinch the series, the Rockets will have to head home and try again Tuesday night.
If nothing else, therefore, the Mavericks had that. They had denied Houston its moment by turning in a Mavericks defensive effort for the ages.
The Rockets, no doubt, will point to their cold shooting — three quarters’ worth — as the reason for Sunday’s troubles. But that won’t be doing justice to the hands-on work done by Aminu, Tyson Chandler and the Mavericks who came in off the bench.
They showed their hand early. On the home team’s first possession of the night, Aminu took the basketball directly toward Howard, drawing the foul. Later, as the Mavericks tried to erase an early 12-point deficit, Devin Harris vigorously challenged Howard at the baseline and sent the big Rocket spinning to the floor.
The officials called it a flagrant foul, but its purpose was served — the AAC crowd roared with approval.
A few minutes later Barea’s jumper gave the Mavericks a 50-48 lead, and Dallas never trailed after that.
Until a fourth-quarter spurt by Josh Smith, the Rockets couldn’t seem to hit anything beyond the free throw paint. Nor could Howard, who was sent to the line 13 times, seem to hit a free throw.
It wasn’t exactly a Hack-a-Howard strategy. But it became the Dallas defense’s go-to option of the night.
The Mavericks’ lead climbed as high as 24.
Barea played more than 35 minutes and seldom slowed. He finished with 17 points and 13 assists, rendering the Rajon Rondo issue formally moot.
Aminu had 12 rebounds and 16 points, bettering Howard in both categories.
No brooms allowed in American Airlines Center on Sunday night.
It’s a rule.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697