The Mavericks continued their late-season reinvention last night with an 88-86 win against the Rockets. Houston became the fifth consecutive opponent Dallas has kept under 90 points, tying the longest such streak by any team this season. Another one bites the dust, and the Mavs have now won five straight contests in the thick of the tightest playoff race in recent memory.

In game No. 5 of the streak, however, the task wasn’t so simple. Many teams have tried and failed to defend Houston’s James Harden, who averages 28.6 points and 7.5 assists per game this season. None, however, have been more successful more often than the Mavericks, who have managed to make the All-Star appear relatively human this season, holding him to 24.8 points per game on just 35.7 percent shooting, his lowest field goal percentage against any opponent he’s played more than twice.

If Harden is the head of the proverbial snake, everything Dallas had to do to be successful defensively last night started and ended with him. And in the final nine minutes of the game, the Mavericks allowed him only three points on 1-of-5 shooting. The Rockets as a team shot just 2 of 14 during that stretch as Dallas eked out another close win.

The Mavs were successful at keeping Harden out of the lane, as only six of his 22 points came in the paint and he attempted just seven free throws. Aside from some terrific individual defense by Wesley Matthews, they did it by pressuring him with an extra defender almost every time he came off a ball-screen, forcing him out of a drive and instead into either making a pass to another player or taking a long three-pointer late in the shot clock.

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The Rockets scored one point in the final 3:20 of the game, including shooting 0 of 5 from the field and turning the ball over once. Harden went scoreless after the 5:19 mark.

“I’m proud of our guys for being willing to be team guys and play this way,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “Houston is a high-scoring team. They are very talented and the highest fourth-quarter scoring team in basketball. What they have been doing is seducing people into getting into up-and-down games in the fourth and we felt we needed to keep it close and not allow that to happen.”

Added Matthews: “We’re starting to understand that this is how we’ve got to play. We’ve got to stop teams. We’ve got to be able to rely on our defense. We have to be able to stop people and give ourselves cushion and room to breathe.”

Perhaps the two biggest plays of the game were made by some of the most unexpected guys on the floor. With 1:35 left in regulation, Harden sent a long pass up the floor to a streaking Trevor Ariza, who appeared to have an easy layup for a chance to put his team ahead, 87-86. But Justin Anderson flew in quite literally out of nowhere to make a huge block and preserve the lead.

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Then, on Houston’s last real chance to claim the lead, Harden managed to beat Matthews off the bounce — but going toward his right, which matters. The left-handed Harden prefers finishing with his dominant hand. As he brought the ball from his right to his left, however, Dirk Nowitzki of all people was there to strip him. The Big German, obviously more known for his offensive dominance than his defensive prowess, made the biggest defensive play of the game. Devin Harris collected the loose ball and hit both free throws, putting Dallas up 88-85 with five seconds left.

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“(Harden) comes so fast down the lane, always,” Nowitzki said. “I’ve tried to strip him probably a hundred times over the last couple years. He’s so smart getting that contact, and he always gets to the line, so I was actually surprised that I really got all-ball. I thought it was a good play. But, like I said, he’s so good with his arms out, kind of creating contact, that sometimes you’ve got to be careful with reaching.”

Matthews, a player who is known for his defense, summed up Nowitzki’s play best. When asked if he could ever have imagined Dirk’s biggest play of the season would be a steal, he just laughed and then deadpanned: “Uh, no.”

The Mavs’ gritty play late in Wednesday’s game typifies the team they have become, having completely shifted their philosophy with less than a dozen games remaining on the schedule. The Mavericks have played the second-slowest pace in the NBA since their five-game win streak began on March 28, and during that time they also have the second-best defensive rating in the league. They’ve forced 17.2 turnovers per game in that time and are allowing opponents to take a whopping 10.6 fewer shots per game. When opponents shoot less and turn the ball over more often, that is usually going to lead to wins.

While unorthodox, the Mavs’ complete 180 has been extremely effective. They’ve gone from 35-38 and out of the playoff picture to 40-38 and two games behind the Grizzlies for fifth place. That matters, of course, as Memphis comes to town tomorrow night for a massive showdown. A win would give Dallas a 3-1 season series victory, clinching a tiebreaker in the event both teams finish with the same record. It would also create further distance between Dallas and the ninth-place Rockets, a gap currently sitting comfortably at two games. There’s been a lot on the line for the last month, it seems, and the Mavericks have risen to the occasion, doing it with defense, toughness, and a commitment to play possession-by-possession basketball.

“If we continue to focus on the process, the result will take care of itself,” Carlisle said. “We’re no perfect team, there’s no doubt about that. But when you compete hard and compete for each other, you’ve got a chance to do some things. And that’s what we’re gonna continue to do.”

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