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Mavericks edge shorthanded Pistons in possible Finals preview

Mar 18, 2007 - 11:57 PM AUBURN HILLS, Michigan (Ticker) -- Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks can feel good about themselves again. So can the Detroit Pistons.

Nowitzki had 28 points, 12 rebounds and a tough clinching jumper with 1:03 to go as the Mavericks held off the Pistons, 92-88, in a battle of the top teams in each conference.

"We know that they are a great team and they are a top team in the East and in the NBA," Mavericks forward Josh Howard said. "So we came out here and played our game and matched their intensity level, which is why we got out of here with a win."

Devin Harris scored 22 points for the Mavericks (54-11), who never trailed in the final 9 1/2 minutes and widened their lead over Phoenix to 4 1/2 games atop the Western Conference.

Dallas had a 17-game winning streak stopped last week and hit a bit of a lull. It dropped consecutive games to Golden State and Phoenix and needed a late surge to get past lowly Boston.

"I think we had a tough loss against Phoenix," Nowitzki said. "To us, that was a huge game. We felt we had it wrapped (up), we were up seven (points) with a minute to go and we gave it away. Obviously, that was a very disappointing, big loss for us. I think we're a good enough team that we can recover from a tough loss."

"It took a lot out of us and obviously as you can see it took a lot out of them, too," Dallas guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "They (Phoenix) lost the next two games. We were able to recover from it a little quicker than they did."

The Mavericks paid a visit to the Pistons, who had arrived home after a 5-0 trek through the Western Conference. Detroit won at Dallas on December 7 and was looking for the season sweep in a possible preview of the NBA Finals.

"You can always look back," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "You may play a team like this in the Finals, so there are a few things you have to find out."

However, the Pistons were without All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups, who suffered a groin injury in Friday's win over Phoenix. They could have used his leadership and clutch shooting down the stretch.

"Obviously, it helped us that Chauncey was out," Nowitzki said. "He's probably their MVP, one of the greatest clutch shooters in this league, so that helped that he was out."

Flip Murray started for Billups and collected 18 points, six assists and four steals. But the Pistons were let down by Richard Hamilton, their other All-Star guard.

Hamilton scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting. More important, the 87 percent free-throw shooter was just 2-of-7 from the line, all in the fourth quarter.

"Man, it was crazy," Hamilton said. "I never expect to miss back-to-back free throws twice in a row. It was crazy, that's all I can say."

Harris had a driving layup and 3-pointer, Howard made a free throw and Stackhouse had a three-point play in a 9-0 spurt that gave Dallas the lead for good at 78-73 with 7:34 to play.

One of Hamilton's made free throws pulled Detroit into an 81-81 tie with 4:08 left. But Jason Terry made a floater and pull-up jumper around two missed free throws by Hamilton. Two foul shots by Stackhouse gave the Mavericks an 87-81 advantage with 1:35 remaining.

"The big two was when he missed two when it was a two-point game," Saunders said. "It was like someone let all the air out of the arena."

After a basket by Chris Webber, Nowitzki - with the shot clock winding down - hit a tough turnaround 18-footer from the left baseline.

"At this point, we only had a couple seconds on the shot clock," Nowitzki said. "I basically just turned around and shot. You never know in that situation - sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn't. I was fortunate that the ball went in."

"The way Nowitzki is, it doesn't matter whether you're big or small, he still is going to cause you problems," Saunders said.

Despite five points in the final 20 seconds by Murray, the Mavericks made enough free throws to hold on, which they did not do in their loss to the Suns.

Howard, Terry and Stackhouse scored 12 points each and Howard grabbed nine rebounds for the Mavericks, who overcame a slow start to shoot 49 percent (32-of-65). Dallas held a 39-31 advantage on the glass.

"If you can't play physical against Detroit, you don't have a chance," Terry said. "They've been like that for years. We were able to match their physicality and for the most part we did a decent job on staying solid and not giving up too many easy baskets."

Antonio McDyess scored 17 points off the bench and Rasheed Wallace also scored 13 points for the Pistons, who shot 46 percent (36-of-78) and forced 19 turnovers.

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