It came down to the final play in a game that had all the feelings of a playoff game atmosphere in Dallas Wednesday night. Trailing by three, Jason Terry went to the free throw line for the Houston Rockets hoping to pull out a miracle finish. After making the first, Terry intentionally missed the second and Wesley Matthews came up with the lose ball that he slapped to the end of the court to let time expire. The Dallas Mavericks celebrated on the court with owner Mark Cuban.
The Mavericks improve to 40-38 with a two-game lead over Houston for sole possession of the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff hunt. The win is the Mavs fifth straight and ties their season series with Houston at two games a piece. The Rockets are now 38-40 and trail the Utah Jazz by a game for the final spot in the West. After earning a huge win over Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Rockets couldn't put together back-to-back wins, something the team has failed to do since they won against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics nearly a month ago.
Furious Fourth Quarter Finish
The Mavs spent much of the second quarter catching back up to Houston and used a 12-0 run to take the lead before halftime. The Rockets chipped away at the lead as Michael Beasley and Dwight Howard came up big in the third quarter and the Rockets took a 71-70 lead into the final frame after Howard tipped in an inbound pass with 0.2 seconds remaining. Howard finished the game with 14 points and 16 rebounds and single-handily outrebounded Dallas in the third quarter, 8-6. Beasley was also a key contributor, adding 15 points on 6-10 shooting.
The fourth quarter would turn into a battle of two of the most unlikely players. James Harden came out and scored on back-to-back three-point makes and scored nine points in the first three minutes of the quarter. For the Mavs, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week J.J. Barea matched Harden shot for shot, keeping the game close. With just over five minutes left to play, Harden drove to the bucket and scored on the layup while picking up the foul to make it 83-82 Rockets. Houston extended the lead to three after Howard missed a free throw but Patrick Beverly soared above the big men of Dallas to get the tip in for the bucket.
"Me and Justin (Anderson) messed that up," Barea said. "I was really mad at myself for letting that happen. Luckily though Dirk (Nowitzki) set a good ball screen for me and I was able to get the layup and one."
Barea tied the game on the following possession on a layup and a foul to make it 85-85 with 3:06 left in the game. In the final seconds, the ball was given to Harden to make a play. Harden got past Matthews and the help defender and got all the way to the basket before Dirk Nowitzki came up with the play of the night on a strip on Harden to get the ball free and give the possession back to Dallas with five seconds left in the game.
The defensive effort by the Mavs during the fourth quarter was really the difference maker. Harden scored 12 points in the fourth and finished with 26 points, five rebounds and four assists. The rest of the Rockets were limited to 15 points in the fourth quarter on 5-20 shooting from the field. Matthews and Devin Harris were big for Dallas on limiting the effectiveness of Harden, while role players such as Justin Anderson and Salah Mejri made huge impacts down the stretch.
Anderson came up with timely rebounds and hustle plays for the Mavericks, but one play stood alone as the best. With 1:34 left to play and the Mavericks protecting a one-point lead, Harden grabbed the rebound off the Mavs miss and found Trevor Ariza streaking to the basket on the other end of the court. Ariza got the ball, but Anderson chased him down for an emphatic rejection to keep the Dallas lead intact. Mejri was a defensive force all game long, as he finished with five rebounds and three blocks off the bench. After the Rockets made it 77-73 early in the fourth quarter, Mejri blocked a shot put up by the Rockets which led to a fast break three-point make by Harris to cut the Houston lead to one.
Video Credit: NBA Players
It would be the smallest man on the court that would prove to be biggest shot maker. Barea finished the game with a game-high 27 points, eight assists, five rebounds and was 4-7 from beyond the arc. It's the fourth-straight game that Barea has finished with at least 20 points scored, the first time he's accomplished the feat in his 10-year career. He's averaged 25.8 points per game over the last four games and has been a big catalyst for Dallas since starting point guard Deron Williams went down with an injury.
"I'm in great rhythm, I'm attacking the basket, shooting the ball and getting my teammates open," Barea said. "Coach (Rick Carlisle) has been putting me in great situations and it's been working out for us. Hopefully we can keep it rolling."
Dallas, Utah and Houston have all been in a race to see which two out of three teams will grab the final two spots at the bottom of the Western Conference. With the win, Dallas has a one game lead over Utah and a two game lead over the Rockets in the seventh seed. Things won't get any easier however as the Mavs will face the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Jazz and San Antonio Spurs in their final four games of the season.
The Rockets schedule looks much different than the Mavs down the stretch, as they'll face the bottom of the conference in their final four games. They'll take on the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings, with three of those games coming at home.
A win for Houston would have been big, as it would have given them the tie-breaker over Dallas if in fact there is a tie for one of the final seeds at the end of the season.