DALLAS -- When Dirk Nowitzki is right, the big German dropping 10 points in the fourth quarter of a win is no big deal.
But Dirk ain’t been all the way right since his right knee started swelling up again early in training camp. So his fourth-quarter line from Wednesday’s win over the Houston Rockets -- 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting and four rebounds -- represents significant progress in Nowitzki’s journey back to the norm.
“Yeah, it’s all right,” Nowitzki said, exhibiting the kind of enthusiasm usually displayed by a man clipping his toenails. “I’m still going to be a piece of work, but I had some good looks there.”
By the way, piece of work means work of progress in Dirk’s version of the English language.
He’s an 11-time All-Star who will almost certainly hit the 25,000-point milestone at some point this season, so Nowitzki is not going to be too excited about a 19-point performance in a January win. Mavs owner Mark Cuban estimated that Nowitzki was in the 80-85 percent range at this point.
“You’ll know when he’s back to being himself,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s not there yet. He’s not there yet.”
The 34-year-old Nowitzki, who missed the first 27 games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, has at least built up the stamina to get his normal minutes workload on a regular basis. And the Mavs have started going to him more and more down the stretch.
Nowitzki got going on the Mavs’ final possession in the third quarter, when point guard Mike James penetrated and kicked to him in the corner for a wide-open 3.
“That was definitely a shot I needed there to find my rhythm and get going,” said Nowitzki, who was 7-of-14 from the floor in the game. “Sometimes all you need is to see the ball go through the hoop one time. After that, I stayed aggressive. We ran some plays for me. I actually got a little separation. That was good, but I’m going to keep on working, keep pushing.”
A few more notes from the Mavs’ fourth straight win:
1. One day at a time for James: Point guard Mike James’ 10-day contract expires Thursday. It’s all but a done deal that he’ll get another 10-day deal from the Mavs.
“I’d say that there’s a great chance that he’s going to be there tomorrow after tonight,” Carlisle said. “By the way, I’d say that his play late in the third quarter and when he went in in the fourth quarter may have been the difference in the game.”
The 37-year-old James was 1-of-8 from the floor, but the plus-minus backs up Carlisle’s point. The Mavs outscored the Rockets by 17 points in James’ 17 minutes. He had five assists and played physical defense against Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, who was able to bully Darren Collison for most of the fourth quarter.
“My focus is, if he calls my name, continue trying to earn my keep,” James said. “I know I’m an NBA player.”
2. Brand’s big block: Everyone in the arena knew James Harden was going hard to the rack with the game tied and a little more than a minute remaining. That doesn’t make it easy to stop him.
But Elton Brand swatted Harden’s lefty layup attempt off the glass, a critical stop that sparked a fast break which ended with O.J. Mayo going to the line for the go-ahead free throws. It was the biggest block of Brand’s brief Mavs tenure -- and further evidence that Dallas benefits from having its defensive anchor on the floor to finish games.
“He’s one of the best finishers in the league,” said Brand, who had 11 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes against the Rockets. “I just tried to do whatever I could to get a stop right there, because we needed a stop. ... I just tried to meet him at the rim and see what we could do from there.”
Brand is generously lifted at 6-foot-9 and was never known as a leaper, even in his younger years, but he’s a surprisingly effective shot blocker. Brand has used his long arms and outstanding timing to average 1.9 blocks per game in his career and 1.3 this season.
“Since I let my man go by me all the time,” Nowitzki said, “he’s got a lot of practice shot blocking.”
3. Matrix’s magnificence: You can make a strong case that this was the best all-around performance by Shawn Marion this season.
Marion had 18 points -- two shy of his season high -- on 8-of-13 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out three assists. He was also the primary defender on Harden, who finished with 20 points but was only 5-of-23 from the floor.
“I’m taking it as it comes,” Marion said. “I’m a basketball player. I let the game come to me.”