And he wasn’t alone. With a remarkable group effort from a team that’s been allergic to defense for years, the Sacramento Kings finally got over .500 for the first time this season.
Brad Miller had 17 points and 10 rebounds, Kenny Thomas scored six points in the final minute and the Kings hung on for their 12th straight home victory, 85-80 over the injury-depleted Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night.
Artest scored 15 points for the Kings (32-31), who won despite scoring just 33 points in a miserable second half. They still won with a remarkable defensive game against Nowitzki, with Artest leading a scheme featuring far more contact than the Mavs thought was legal.
“We did what you have to do against an incredible player like (Nowitzki),” Artest said. “It was a total team effort, because one guy can’t guard him. That’s what we’re going to have to do when we get down the stretch and into the playoffs.”
Yes, defense has the Kings on track for the playoffs—something that seemed impossible just 21 games earlier, when they acquired Artest in the midst of their worst season since 1998.
With New Orleans’ loss to New Jersey, the Kings moved into eighth place in the Western Conference—a half-game ahead of the Hornets and a half-game behind the seventh-place Los Angeles Lakers, who visit Arco Arena on Tuesday night.
“We’re over .500 now, and that’s really big, but we want to keep thinking about the next step,” said Thomas, who capitalized when Dallas left him open in the final seconds. “We’re still not in yet. We can’t get comfortable now.”
Nothing was comfortable about this win. Artest has been in plenty of these defensive dust-ups in the Eastern Conference, but offense usually rules at Arco Arena—particularly when the Mavs are in town.
“They are a lot different now that they have Artest,” said Dallas’ Jason Terry, who hit two big shots in the final possessions. “They don’t run the passing game the way that they used to. … We just didn’t knock down our shots tonight. I don’t know if it was their defense or our lack of offense.”
Nowitzki had 24 points and 13 rebounds for Dallas, which also couldn’t shoot straight in a defense-dominated second half. The Mavericks couldn’t overcome the absence of three injured regulars and coach Avery Johnson, ejected in the third quarter for charging the court to argue.
“We were right there, but it was just a tough shooting night,” Nowitzki said after the Mavericks barely surpassed their previous season-low of 78 points.
Miller’s jumper with 1:39 left put Sacramento up 79-74 before Terry—who missed nine of his first 11 shots—hit a 3-pointer and converted a three-point play for Dallas.
But Thomas hit back-to-back jumpers, including a wide-open shot with 29 seconds left that put the Kings up 83-80. After Marquis Daniels and Terry missed open 3-pointers, Thomas hit two free throws with 8 seconds to play.
Its three-game winning streak snapped, Dallas dropped back into a tie with San Antonio atop the conference standings at 49-14. Daniels scored 19 points and Terry added 14.
The Mavericks played without guards Adrian Griffin and Devin Harris because of injuries, and forward Josh Howard only made it through the first half before getting sidelined again by a sore left hamstring that kept him out of the last four games.
But the Mavericks kept it close with strong defense against the Kings, who went 3-of-20 and missed their last 10 shots of the third quarter.
Both teams struggled in the third—but Johnson, owner Mark Cuban and the Mavericks’ bench were angered when three calls in close succession went against Dallas. Referee Gary Zielinski hit Johnson with a technical foul with 3:43 left in the quarter.
When the crowd roared, Johnson marched across the court to argue with Zielinski, who walked away while calling a second technical foul and ejecting the coach. Johnson quickly left the court without even getting an argument with Zielinski.
“I wasn’t trying to rally the team by getting ejected,” Johnson said. “I think it was more just a difference of opinion. We were dealing with things the whole game, and we thought that we had a legitimate beef with the way they were playing Dirk. I guess we were wrong.”
Kings G Kevin Martin hurt his shoulder late in the game, but won’t know the extent of the injury until Monday. … The Mavericks had won in seven of their last 11 trips to Sacramento. Dallas is the only team to win at Arco Arena in each of the last six seasons, including a 10-point win on Dec. 22. … Dallas F Keith Van Horn missed his fifth straight game with a sprained knee ligament.