HOUSTON – If Tim Hardaway Jr. continues to play like he did Sunday in Houston, the Dallas Mavericks just may be able to reach their goal of making the playoffs this season.

Hardaway was absolutely amazing with a season-high 31 points and played a key role in the Mavs taking over sole possession of first place in the Southwest Division with a 137-123 triumph over the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center.

Hardaway was 10-of-18 from the floor, including 5-of-11 from 3-point land. He scored seven points in the first quarter and added 12 more in the second quarter and kept the Rockets off balance all night long.

“He was great again,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s playing great at both ends of the floor, and a great floor game. He’s an underrated passer and he’s a connector out there. I really like what he’s doing.”

In addition to his scoring, Hardaway had five assists and two steals as the Mavs stretched their record to 11-5.

“He was the hot player tonight,” said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who contributed 12 pints and 10 rebounds. “It seemed like everything he shot was going in. I’m happy for him. I see the work that he puts in.”

In Hardaway’s last three games, he scored 20 points on 6-of-7 shots last Wednesday against Golden State, and 16 points on 6-of-8 shots this past Friday against Cleveland. And the season-high 31 points Hardaway tallied Sunday were the most he’s scored since the Mavs acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks on Jan. 31.

“One of the goals is to maintain it and continue to take the pressure off of (Kristaps Porzingis) and Luka (Doncic),” Hardaway said. “Whatever I have to do I’m going to continue to do it. I know there’s going to be a time where I’m not shooting the ball one or two games great, but I can’t still affect the game in other aspects.”

While Doncic said Hardaway did “amazing things” against the Rockets, Hardaway noted that the 4-0 sweep by the Mavs on their recent home stand was a precursor to what transpired against Houston.

“It was just important for us to go in there mentally knowing that we had four games at home and we got to take each game one step at a time and make sure we protect home court and make sure we focused on the little things—the basics of the game,” Hardaway said. “And just keep on trying to get wins one after another, just carry it on over here to Houston, and thankfully we got the win.”

The Mavs (11-5) will host the Los Angeles Clippers (11-5) Tuesday at 7:30 at American Airlines Center. But before taking on the Clippers, Hardaway wasn’t about to say that the win over the Rockets represented some sort of statement game.

“I don’t think it was a statement game,” he said. “We know they’re a heck of a ballclub and we know that we have to see them three more times. Right now we’re going to enjoy this and then move on to the Clippers on Tuesday night.”

KLEBER AND THE BENCH: Led by Maxi Kleber, the Mavs’ bench outscored their Houston counterparts, 28-11.

Kleber wound up with 11 points and converted 2-of-4 shots from 3-point range.

“Kleber was great,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t think he had gaudy numbers, but he hit two threes which were very, very good.

“He hit one at the end of the first half that was big when they were making a bit of a run, and then he made one out of a timeout up at the top when they had cut the lead down to five or seven. He had big shot-making tonight, and then defensively he’s always going to give it to us.”

Also, in his first game back after missing two contests with an illness, guard Seth Curry played played 15 minutes and finished with two points on 1-of-4 shots.

CARLISLE PROUD THE MAVS WITHSTOOD THE ROCKETS’ RUNS: Every time the Rockets made a run, the Mavs would answer with a run of their own.

Carlisle knows that’s the mark of a good team.

“We knew they were going to make plenty of them,” Carlisle said. “I thought we were capable of coming in and having this kind of a game. But you’re on the road with great players and great coaching, they’re going to keep coming at you and they did. We just were able to finally get our bodies in front of them enough.”

Mainly, the Mavs chopped into the Rockets’ bread and butter as they limited Houston to just 10-of-44 shooting on 3-point attempts.

“I thought we outlasted them on a certain level, but I’m very proud of the effort,” Carlisle said. “Our defensive coaching staff did a great job putting the game plan together and our guys executed it well.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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