In their sixth game, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks finally looked like the reigning NBA champions.
They loaded up on easy baskets. They forced the league's last unbeaten team to miss way more shots than usual. And the best highlights came from their superstar, as Nowitzki scored 10 of his 26 points during a third-quarter spurt that sent the Mavs to a 100-87 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.
Dallas had been 1-4, with its aging roster seeming to show its age and a gaggle of new players looking like they needed more time to get in the flow. Yet while playing their fourth game in five nights, the Mavs had their best game so far.
"This team is set up to get better month-by-month," Nowitzki said. "We should have a good team in March and April. Saying that, we've still got to find ways to win. ... This team has a lot of potential, with a lot of scorers, a lot of veterans who know how to play. We can be a very dangerous team."
The Thunder, who lost to the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals last season and beat Dallas with a buzzer-beater last week, were the more dangerous team coming in. They started the night 5-0, joining Miami as the league's last unbeatens. The Heat lost to Atlanta while this game was going on.
Oklahoma City had a chance to take a healthy lead in the opening minutes, when the Mavericks missed nine of their first 11 shots. But the Thunder just never got going -- on either end. They gave up 34 points in the second quarter then scored just 18 in the third.
"We didn't have any energy from the beginning," said Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points. "We need energy. It changes the whole game. We need to play with more effort. Everybody looks to me so I've got to start the game better."
Russell Westbrook added 18 points and eight rebounds, and Harden had 16 points and seven rebounds."(Losing) one game out of six isn't the end of the world," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They played much better than us throughout. It wasn't our night. They shot better than us. And we missed shots we normally make."
Dallas began pulling away with a 9-2 run at the start of the second quarter, but Oklahoma City kept clawing back to keep things close. Then Nowitzki took over.
He opened the second half with a jumper over Kendrick Perkins that left the big man snarling at his own bench. He made another shot with defender James Harden ducking for cover, then scooped in a layup on a play that began with Delonte West spinning Harden to the floor. The layup put Dallas up by 15 and the game wasn't close again.
Before the game, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, "I don't think we're as far off as it may appear." He turned out to be right. Two of their flaws were fixed as the Mavs scored 56 points in the paint and kept the rebounds even at 41. Dallas had been averaging nine fewer rebounds than their foes. They also got points from a variety of players.
Shawn Marion scored 17 points, Jason Terry 15 and Vince Carter a season-high 14 -- eight on free throws. Jason Kidd didn't score but had a season-high nine assists. "We're gaining a little momentum, but we were gaining momentum last week and then laid an egg last night in Minnesota," Carlisle said. "We've got to continue the right way and maintain the proper focus, and that's challenging."
Nowitzki was 10 of 16, with four of his misses from 3-point range. He had six rebounds, three assists and two steals. "I've still got work to do, like everyone else," Nowitzki said. "My wind is coming back and my legs are getting stronger."