Houston loss turns up heat on Mavs' trip

The Mavericks found themselves in a first-half hole in all four of the games they'll play this season against the Houston Rockets. Dallas clawed back in the first two meetings from a 50-35 deficit and a 17-4 hole to rally and win handily. That brand of Russian roulette caught up with them in the last two -- the Nowitzki-Landry collision overtime loss and the latest being Thursday's setback, 97-94.

It wasn't a great start to a tough three-game road trip. First off, it dimmed the Mavs' division lead to 2 1/2 over the Rockets (and prevented Dallas from winning the season series, important for potential tiebreaker scenarios at the end of the season) and to two games over the Spurs. It also puts more urgency on the upcoming NoCal-SoCal doubleheader.

Tonight the Mavs venture into a rejuvinated Arco Arena in Sacramento to face early Coach of the Year candidate Paul Westphal's upstart Kings. If the Mavs find themselves looking ahead to Sunday's game at the Staples Center against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and fall behind as they did in Houston, it could be trouble. Dallas (22-10) though has proven resilient. It has not lost two in a row since Dec. 4-5, the only time this season they've dropped consecutive games, and they're 11-5 on the road.

"We’re not going to overlook anyone, we’re going to take it one game at a time," Mavs center Erick Dampier said before the team departed for Houston. "We feel like if we go out there and play the way we’ve been playing, play hard, get stops, get rebounds, we are capable of beating anybody."

The youthful Kings (14-18) lost a on a gut-punch Friday night, 109-108, in Los Angeles on yet another Kobe Bryant 3-point winner. Back at home they're 11-6 even after losing three of their last four at Arco, two coming against Cleveland and the Lakers. On Nov. 20 at the AAC, the Mavs held off Sacramento, 104-102, in a game Dallas seemingly had under control in the final minutes.

The Kings continue to be without their best player, Kevin Martin, but 6-foot-6 rookie guard Tyreke Evans (20.3 ppg, 4.9 apg, 5.1 rpg) has been sensational (although hurting recently with a sore right ankle and missing last night's game), and Israeli-born rookie forward Omri Casspi (12 ppg, 44.2% 3FG) has added length and versatility on a squad in which seven players are averaging double-figure scoring.

(And if you're schedule-watching, the Spurs are at Washington and the Rockets are at New Orleans tonight.)

Then it's off to L.A. for the Mavs' second of four meetings with the Lakers on Sunday night. The Mavs waltzed out of Hollywood with a rare road win in the second game of the season against the Lakers, who were missing Pau Gasol. The perfect complement for Kobe Bryant, Gasol has since returned and entering Friday's game was averaging 17.4 points and 11.8 rebounds in 20 games.

That Dallas will be playing the second half of a back-to-back won't make sneaking out a win any easier. A victory in Sacramento would figure to pump a double-shot of energy.

"All the games are hard, there are no breaks in the West," coach Rick Carlisle said. "Even the teams with the lesser records, they’re all improving, they play with a lot of energy and they’re all very good on their home court ... We want to build momentum, that’s the idea and we want to make sure we don’t have letdowns. Execution, and making sure we’re ready to play from the beginning of the games, is going to be key."