12/15/2007 Mavericks @ Houston

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HOUSTON – The Mavericks have been looking for carryover. From practice to practice. From game to game. From quarter to quarter.

Whatever the time frame or circumstance, the search for carryover from one performance to the next was put to the test Saturday night. Finishing a back-to-back on the road against a division rival coming off a two-day break is about as stiff a challenge as there is in the NBA.

The Mavs rose to the occasion and clamped down on the Rockets to escape the Toyota Center with a 96-83 victory. In beating Houston for the third time in three tries already this season and six straight overall, Dallas (16-9) appears to be turning a corner.

“It’s about time,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “It’s December now and there has to be a sense of urgency and the last two games there has been some progress. We’re pressing too much and we don’t need to worry, but to just go out and have fun. You can’t get too high or too low because it is a long season.”

After an uneven opening 20 games, the Mavs gave themselves a personal challenge for the last five games.

“Our defense really picked up,” said Jerry Stackhouse, who scored 17 in 28 minutes off the bench. “We’re 4-1. We wanted to look at it as a playoff series and 4-1 will do it every time.”

Billed as Southwest Division heavyweights coming into the season, Dallas and Houston have yet to put “it” together. Both squads acknowledge as much. Each also realizes the other has the potential to represent the Western Conference in the Finals come June.

Punches were flying from the start. Jason Terry and Tracy McGrady traded 3-pointers to open the game. Nowitzki’s first field goal was a driving dunk. He matched his made shot total of Friday (two) with a jumper four minutes in.

But the reason the Mavs are a win from sweeping the season series with Houston had to do with carryover. They matched the defensive intensity that toppled New Orleans 24 hours prior. The Hornets were held to 80 points on 36-percent shooting. Houston (12-12) didn’t hit 80 until less than a minute remained and shot 41 percent, despite spending much of the game in the high 30s.

“We’ve won a few games and made a few more shots against a very good basketball team,” Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. “Our players have taken a defensive challenge the last two games. The Rockets are a very good defensive team and when Yao sits in the lane he makes it tough for us to score.”

The Mavs covered the floor, crowded Tracy McGrady (12 points on 5-of-18 shooting) and contained Houston’s complementary pieces. Even though Yao Ming (28 points and 14 rebounds) had a solid night, the perennial All-Star center couldn’t do it alone.

The Mavs began to get separation midway through the third quarter. A 10-2 spurt capped by Devin Harris’ 3-pointer, leading to a Houston timeout, gave Dallas a 59-53 lead. The gap would grow to nine late in the quarter before Yao knocked down a couple of free throws to make it 68-61 going into the final 12 minutes.

Dallas opened the fourth quarter strong and never gave Houston a reason to think a comeback was possible. Josh Howard’s 3-pointer with less than five minutes made it 84-68, and Rockets fans began heading for the exits.

The offensive totals for Dallas weren’t off the charts. Howard led five in double figures with 23 points. Nowitzki (20 points) rebounded after scoring a season-low seven against the Hornets.

But the Mavs were efficient and controlled on offense, shooting a solid 51 percent. Nowitzki and Harris combined for 15 assists.