HOUSTON -- Before Dallas faced the Houston Rockets in the final week of the preseason, the Mavericks brazenly considered running Houston into submission as the soundest strategy to combat the Rockets' simultaneous utilization of centers Omer Asik and Dwight Howard.
The Mavericks were singing a different tune on Friday night, relying instead on a zone defense and intentional fouling in a failed attempt to slow the Rockets, who ran their way to a 113-105 win at Toyota Center.
James Harden scored a game-high 34 points and carried the Rockets (2-0) through an uneven performance linked to the Mavericks' shifting strategy. While Dallas slowed Houston, the Rockets were never stopped.
"Practice it," Harden said in reference to the Rockets developing a counter to such tactics. "Don't get stagnant. That's what they want to do is slow us up when they go in the zone, and we've got to keep the ball movement and keep attacking the space and get open shots."
Harden ended his tug-of-war with Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki with 6:11 remaining, drawing a foul while converting a driving layup to send the foul-plagued Nowitzki to the bench once and for all. Harden completed the three-point play to boost the Houston lead to 96-83.
Nowitzki finished with 22 points but only four rebounds as the Rockets' interior tandem of Howard and Asik controlled the glass. After totaling 40 rebounds against the Charlotte Bobcats Wednesday night, Howard and Asik combined for 28 boards against the Mavericks despite Asik fouling out early in the fourth quarter having played just 15 minutes.
Monta Ellis scored 20 points for Dallas but needed 19 shots from the field to do so. Jae Crowder added 15 points during a garbage-time rally.
The Rockets were on the brink of running the Mavericks out of the building in the first half, taking a 22-point lead when Harden delivered a no-look pass to Jeremy Lin for a reverse layup. That transition basket with 5:53 left in the second quarter bloated the Houston lead to 53-31 and closed a scintillating stretch where the Rockets buried the Mavericks from the arc while also registering 13 fast-break points.
The Mavericks responded by switching to a zone defense and the Rockets shot Dallas back into contention, missing 6 of 7 from 3-point range in the second quarter. Dallas established a deliberate pace offensively behind Nowitzki and cut the deficit to 61-50 by the break.
"We have to play better at the start of the game," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Our play in the first quarter put us in such a hole that we could never get back over the hump, and every minute counts in an NBA game."
The Rockets nearly came unglued in the third quarter, turning the ball over on four consecutive possessions at the start while the Mavericks, after a three-minute dry spell, continued to whittle away at the deficit.
Midway through the quarter, Dallas began to intentionally foul Howard to favorable results. Howard missed seven free throws in the third before finally making three in succession after the five-minute mark.
Nowitzki, meanwhile, got hot. After working Howard over and sending him to the bench with his fourth foul, Nowitzki later converted an offensive rebound that cut the deficit to 76-70 with 3:00 in the third.
"I thought the Hack-a-Howard actually broke the rhythm a little bit and the zone (defense) jumped the game up a little bit," Nowitzki said. "But every time we were right there we just couldn't find the basket."
Harden took charge down the stretch in the third by scoring seven consecutive points, including a three-point play with 2:18 left that rebuilt the lead to 81-70. When Francisco Garcia drilled a 3-pointer to open the fourth, Houston led 88-72 and maintained control from there.
"Coach Carlisle did everything he could to keep them in the game," said Lin, who had 14 points but six turnovers. "We have to make sure that we don't allow other people's adjustments shape the way that we play. We have to put our foot down in terms of this if how we're going to play."
NOTES: Lost amid the hoopla of Howard tying a career high with 26 rebounds in his Rockets debut was Asik pulling down 14 rebounds in just 26 minutes against Charlotte on Wednesday night. Including his three preseason games, Asik is averaging 13.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. "I think Dwight raised Omer's rebounding," Rockets F Ronnie Brewer said. "People didn't talk about Omer's rebounding. He had a solid 14. That's not bad at all." ... Rockets G Patrick Beverley will be sidelined 10-14 days after suffering a partially torn muscle in his midsection against the Bobcats. ... The Mavericks scored 111.6 points per 100 possessions with Jose Calderon on the court against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night, a sharp increase from the sluggish scoring pace that Calderon endured last season, particularly with the Detroit Pistons after the All-Star break (97.5 points/100 possessions). "I think he welcomes it," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of Calderon. "That's one of the reasons he was attracted to us."