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Howard sparks Mavericks to ninth straight win

Nov 26, 2006 - 4:09 AM DALLAS (Ticker) -- Just over two weeks ago, the New Orleans Hornets had yet to lose while the Dallas Mavericks had not won. Things have changed a bit.

Josh Howard returned to the starting lineup and provided a decisive early spark as the Mavericks won their ninth straight game, storming to an 85-73 victory over the Hornets.

Dirk Nowitzki had 28 points and nine rebounds for Dallas, which opened with a 21-3 run and never looked back in its 18th straight win over the Hornets. The Mavericks put together their best defensive effort of the season, holding the Hornets to less than 36 percent (28-of-78) from the field.

On November 8, the Mavericks were 0-4 and four games behind the Hornets, who won their first four games. After Saturday's rout, Dallas (9-4) is 1 1/2 games in front of New Orleans and one game behind San Antonio for first place in the Southwest Division.

"For us to win nine in a row is pretty impressive," Nowitzki said. "(We had) a lot of back-to-backs, a lot of traveling. It's not easy to win on the road in this league."

"It's a great deal of concentrating that we've been doing," Howard said. "We still haven't hit our peak yet. We're just going to continue to get better."

Howard missed eight games with a sprained ankle before returning in Friday's win over San Antonio, in which he scored 12 points off the bench. He was back among the starters Saturday and got the Mavericks going.

"It's huge for us to have him back," Nowitzki said. "He's developed his game to an All-Star caliber. He's really got everything going now. He's got the spot-up shot, but he's still a great slasher, he's a great rebounded for his size. He's probably one of our best defenders. The all-around game that he brings to our team is obviously needed."

"Josh came out firing on both cylinders," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. "His defense also helped us."

The fourth-year forward scored 11 points in the first 5 1/2 minutes, making a pair of 3-pointers and a jumper and sinking three free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer.

"I was knocking my shot down in the first quarter and it felt good," Howard said. "Anytime I can knock down my outside shot, it takes a lot of pressure off my teammates and opens my drive back up."

"He took the pressure off everybody by getting going early and having that big quarter," Mavericks swingman Jerry Stackhouse said. "Then everybody fed off that and it was enough to sustain anything that they did the rest of the game."

Howard's second shot from the arc gave Dallas a 21-3 lead with 6:31 left in the first quarter. He got some help from center Erick Dampier, who scored five of his 11 points in the opening burst.

"There are things that we want (from our centers) and hopefully they can continue to set good picks, run the floor, be tough rebounders, finish around the basket," Johnson said. "Damp was pretty solid tonight."

The Mavericks held a 35-16 lead after one period and never were threatened thereafter. The Hornets got no closer than the final margin.

"(The) first quarter, we just didn't come out to play," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "Against a team as good as they are, as hot as they've been playing ... when you get behind that early, it's like skating uphill all night long."

Already without injured forward David West, the Hornets also played without sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic, who sat out with back spasms.

In the third quarter, guard Bobby Jackson was ejected for arguing, leaving the team even more shorthanded.

"We have to leave the officials alone," Scott said. "We can't keep complaining because we're frustrated and try to take it out on the officials."

Devin Harris scored 10 points for the Mavericks, who shot under 39 percent (26-of-67) but attempted 41 free throws, making 30. Harris also limited Hornets point guard Chris Paul to 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting.

Reserve Jannero Pargo scored 19 points for the Hornets, who have lost three in a row following a four-game winning streak.

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