Josh Howard carefully peeled the wrapper off a bandage, then gently applied it to his surgically repaired left ankle. He rubbed on some cream, pulled up a sock and then, before putting on his shoe, slipped on a brace, too.
"It's going to be sore, guys, it's going to be sore the rest of the year," he said.
At least this time the soreness came with a smile. Howard was back in action after missing 13 games, and was back to his old tricks on both ends of the court, scoring 20 points and flying around for rebounds, steals and blocks while helping lift the Dallas Mavericks to a 102-101 victory over the struggling Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night.
"I'm surprised he played so well for his first game back," Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire said. "He took his time, got healthy and it showed."
The ankle bothered Howard all last season no matter how much therapy he did, so he had it cleaned up over the summer. He missed the first five games of the season recovering, then lasted just 2½ before having to be shut down again. Following a nearly monthlong layoff, he didn't start Tuesday night and coach Rick Carlisle wasn't sure how long he'd use Howard or how good he would be.
He looked pretty rusty when he came in midway through the first quarter and he finished the first half with just a pair of free throws, having missed both shots he took. Then he opened the second half with a jumper that rammed against the backboard, followed by a pass to a teammate who wasn't expecting it, sending the ball rolling out of bounds.
Then, it all turned around.
Howard scored 16 points during a stretch late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, taking Dallas from being tied at 66 to leading 88-79. He had the last nine points in that surge, hitting a 3-pointer from the corner, a pair of free throws, a 14-footer on the baseline and an 18-footer that swished through as the shot clock expired.
He finished 6 of 13, and 6 of 6 from the line, with six rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist in 26 minutes.
"We hit a spell there where he was the only offense we had going," Carlisle said. "He really kept us afloat. It shows you how important he is to our team and he just showed a lot of guts tonight, too. Because he was tired and you could tell he was a little sore."
Dirk Nowitzki scored 33 points and was pretty much keeping the Mavericks in this game by himself until Howard got rolling.
"Once he gets a good rhythm going, we'll be a really tough team to beat," Nowitzki said.
Jason Terry scored 15 points and Shawn Marion added 10 points and seven rebounds in his first game against his longtime team since rejoining the Western Conference. J.J. Barea, who had what likely will become Howard's spot in the starting lineup, scored 14. Jason Kidd had 11 assists and seven points as Dallas kept its first two-game losing streak of the season from stretching any further.
Phoenix made three 3-pointers in the final 47.9 seconds to make things interesting all the way to the buzzer, but the Suns wound up losing for the fourth time in five games. All those losses are on the road, and they've all come in December. Phoenix lost only three times over the last week of October and all of November.
"We've had (an NBA-high) 15 road games, so we're a little bit tired," point guard Steve Nash said. "We've got to fight through that. The legs are a little tired but nobody cares, nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
Nash scored eight of his 27 points in the final minute and had eight assists. Jason Richardson scored 25, including a long 3 during the final push. Stoudemire had 20 points and Jared Dudley 11.
Phoenix scored 12 points in the final minute to get over 100 for just the second time in this December plunge. The Suns had been over 100 points in every game coming into this month.
"Teams are switching every time, making Steve into an offensive player and keeping the rest of the guys out of sync," Stoudemire said. "That's why we're not playing fast tempo. But we'll figure it out." Although the Suns led most of the first half and the Mavericks never trailed again after Howard's big spurt, the tight finish was reminiscent of the many great games and playoff series between these teams in the year since Nash went from Dallas to the desert.
Terry kept the drama going by missing a free throw with 3.7 seconds left. He intentionally missed the next one. Stoudemire got the rebound, took a few dribbles then heaved it about 75 feet. It was pretty much on line but short.
"When Steve kept making those 3s at the end ... that felt like a little deja vu," Nowitzki said. "But we hung in there."
NOTES: Carlisle said Howard may miss one of the back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday nights. ... Phoenix's Lou Amundson returned after missing two games with the flu. Leandro Barbosa missed his fourth game because of a sprained left ankle. ... A couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary -- each wearing No. 75 Mavs jerseys -- were featured on the "kiss cam" during a timeout. They smooched twice to loud cheers.