While the Dallas Mavericks have had their way with the Houston Rockets of late, they're not expecting anything to come easy during a crucial home-and-home set.
Hoping to make up some ground in the standings, the visiting Mavericks go for a 10th consecutive win over the Rockets on Sunday night.
Dallas (26-32) has its work cut out if it hopes to catch Houston (32-28), which sits in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Mavericks are five games behind the Rockets, but sweeping the next two games could help them get back in the mix.
These Southwest Division rivals conclude their season series Wednesday in Dallas.
"It's been a frustrating and disappointing season obviously overall. We lost a couple of close games that we thought we should've had," Dirk Nowitzki said. "We have to go in with a free mindset and kind of forget what happened so far and let it all rip. Houston is a great team. (James) Harden is having a phenomenal year. They're a tough team. They're fast, athletic. So we got our hands full."
Dallas has taken nine straight from Houston - the last eight by single digits - for its longest win streak in the 33-year history of this rivalry. The Mavericks overcame Harden's 39 points thanks to a career high-tying 40 from O.J. Mayo in a 116-109 road win Dec. 8, then pulled out a 105-100 home victory Jan. 16.
"That's a (team that's) ahead of us and gives us the opportunity to gain ground and make them back track a little bit," Mayo said of the Rockets.
Two nights after blowing a 25-point lead versus Memphis, Dallas nearly let a 20-point lead slip away Friday before winning 98-90 at Brooklyn to snap a three-game skid. Nowitzki and Vince Carter scored 20 points apiece while Mayo added 17 for the Mavericks, who shot 50.0 percent.
"They're all big, and in dropping the last three, we needed one," coach Rick Carlisle told the team's official website. "We put together a solid game and we were solid enough to beat one of the better teams in the East, so that's a good sign for us. ... We've just got to keep emphasizing the importance of playing 48 minutes and not 20."
The Rockets avoided a third straight loss Friday, winning 118-110 at Orlando. Harden scored 24 points while Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino each had 21.
"All these games are going to count, especially if we want to make the playoff push," Harden said. "We try not to (think about it), because we try not to get sidetracked by thinking about too many other things."
While Houston's 106.6 points per game rank as the NBA's second-highest mark, it is yielding an average of 103.7 to rank 29th. The Mavericks are 22-7 when scoring at least 103 points compared to 4-25 when they don't.
"We have to definitely sharpen up defensively," said Parsons, averaging 21.7 points on 57.4 percent shooting over the last three games. "I think it is a lot of mental things that we are having breakdowns on, but honestly it is just effort. We have to have all of our focus on that end.
"We're trying to make a playoff push and we're not just trying to get in, we're trying to get a better seed."
Slowing down Nowitzki could prove key in these next two games. The former league MVP is averaging 21.2 points - 5.1 more than his season mark - on 53.2 percent shooting over the last five contests.
Dallas is 35-7 all-time versus Houston when Nowitzki scores at least 16 points. He had 19 in the Jan. 16 victory after missing the first matchup due to injury.