IN SHORT - The Jazz rallied from a 15-point deficit and briefly took a fourth-quarter lead. But Dallas reeled off 10 straight points, and Dirk Nowitzki nailed back-to-back three-point clinchers.
KEY STAT - Three Jazz starters, Jarron Collins, Deron Williams and Milt Palacio, combined to make just three of 17 field-goal tries.
KEY MOMENT - The Jazz were back within six points with less than three minutes to play, but Dirk Nowitzki drifted to the corner to hit a three, then shot another one over Mehmet Okur 30 seconds later, putting the game out of reach.
It's too soon to predict how their championship chase will play out, but this much is certain already: These new-and-improved Mavericks are fabulously loser-friendly.
It's almost comforting to a team like the Jazz, which recently lost games to Charlotte and Seattle by pouring gasoline over themselves and lighting matches, how understandable and even tolerable the Mavs make their inevitable victory. It's practically like watching a well-rehearsed play.
Dallas' 90-87 clock-puncher over the Jazz, for instance - well, pulling an upset would have been a tremendous whoop for the home team and its rowdy crowd. But hey, Dirk Nowitzki is simply going to hit clutch three-pointers, like the back-to-back assassin's bullets he fired with 2:30 to play. Marquis Daniels, relentless in attacking the basket, is bound to beat a leaky zone for the occasional layup, like the one that staked the Mavs to a 10-point lead with four minutes to play. Waterbug guard Jason Terry is great from long range, Jerry Stackhouse has a dependable turnaround jumper, and the Mavs are wholly worthy of their conference-leading 49-13 record.
They even provide the requisite moment of hope, like the six straight points Utah scored to open the fourth quarter and take a brief one-point lead, before
executing with the ruthlessness that will serve them well in May and June.
The Mavs went on a 10-0 run midway through the final period to keep the Earth spinning on its axis, and the experience was so oddly painless, even Jerry Sloan had to appreciate the spirited workout Dallas put his team through.
"It was a winnable ballgame if we make those shots we had at the end," Sloan almost sighed. "We got good shots, but if you don't make those shots in this league, you're probably going to go home. They, on the other hand, went down there and made almost every single one they had to make. That's a good ballclub."
Nowitzki looked like the MVP candidate he is, scoring 34 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Stackhouse had 16, Terry 14 and Daniels 10, and the Mavs overcame the injury absences of Josh Howard, Keith Van Horn and, midway through the first quarter, Devin Harris in beating Utah for the sixth time in seven meetings.
"We are excited to get out of here with this win," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said graciously. "We knew it was going to be a dogfight playing against a well-coached team."
Sloan returned the compliment, with even more sincerity. "They're playing more like playoff basketball rather than a pickup game," he said. "They've got guys who have been in the league a long time, [and] if you make a little mistake, they take advantage."
So semi-tranquilized did Dallas make the Jazz, Sloan couldn't even work up any fury over an ill-advised impulse by Andrei Kirilenko in the final six seconds. With the Jazz trailing by five and roughly 10 seconds to play, Kirilenko plucked the ball away from Terry, raced to the basket and got fouled.
He made the first free throw to cut the lead to four. Then, rather than make it a one-possession game by sinking the second free throw, Kirilenko had an idea: Miss on purpose, and try to bank the rebound to Mehmet Okur.
"It's very practical in Europe, miss free throw on purpose with good angle," said Kirilenko, who said he also believed the Mavs' lead was five points, not four. "It was close. Memo almost gets it. I should probably get little bit higher arc."
Matt Harpring had another suggestion, too: "If you're going to do it," he said, "you've got to tell your teammates."
Wow, Sloan must have been irate, right? Huh. Not so much.
"Well, Andrei's gotta be Andrei. I'm not going to get upset about it," Sloan said mildly. "He's got to understand that everybody needs to know what we're doing. I'm not going to get in a rift with him. The important thing is for him to play and play well. Whatever it takes for him to play well, I'm willing to accept that."
See, this is what the Mavs do. They make everyone happy. Sloan wasn't anything more than mild after his team tripped up in the fourth quarter. He even played rookie Deron Williams all 24 minutes of the second half, just to see how he would respond. The answer: He ran the offense relatively well, but hurt his case with a 2-for-11 shooting night.
Okur scored 32 points and Kirilenko 19, but the Jazz dropped 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans for the final playoff spot, and a game behind Sacramento for ninth.
Jazz Notes: Sloan was angry on Friday, however, after rookie center Robert Whaley stayed home from practice with a bad back - but didn't call the team to let them know. Whaley's back was treated with an injection on Saturday, and he is expected to be out for several more days. Sloan said he gave the rookie a stern lecture, but he plans no further discipline at the moment.
Mavericks 90, Jazz 87