DALLAS -- For the most part, since February's All-Star break, Vince Carter has played like a 35-year-old veteran in his 13th NBA season.
He's hung around the perimeter lofting jumpers that too often clang off the rim. His defense has been shakier than usual, and his scoring has decreased.
There have been way too many games in which his impact has been minimal, if that.
That's changed in the past two games. Maybe Carter has been saving himself for the playoffs.
If the Mavs win Friday at home versus Golden State, they'll get an opportunity to defend their title.
As for Carter, it was his first 20-point performance since he scored 20 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 22 and just his fourth this season.
After "Jet" hit a 3-pointer with 7:33 left to give the Mavs a 93-92 lead, Carter followed with a 3 from the left wing on the next possession, pushing the margin to 96-92 and capping a 20-8 run.
Two minutes later, Carter made another huge play. He hustled to poke a rebound away from a Houston defender and into the arms of Nowitzki, who drove to the basket and made an off-balance layup as he was fouled.
Nowitzki converted the free throw as the Mavs pushed their lead to 102-94 with 4:33 left.
"Vince played his most important game of the season," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He was real aggressive offensively, he used his body defensively and good things happened on both ends."
Carter played so well that Shawn Marion didn't play in the fourth quarter. Carter scored 18 points in a season-high 45 minutes Monday night in a triple-overtime loss to Utah.
"I just want to be aggressive and make the most of my minutes on the floor and let it all hang out," Carter said. "More than anything, it's that time of the year. We're trying to fight for a spot, and it's time to gear yourself to play at the level it takes to compete in the playoffs."
Any chance of advancing past the first round will have quite a bit to do with whether Carter can continue being a consistent offensive threat. He doesn't have to score 23 points and contribute highlight-reel dunks like he did on several occasions against Houston, but the Mavs need to be able to depend on his offense. If he can score 10 to 14 points a game on efficient shooting, Dirk and Jet will take care of the rest.
Obviously, that's easier said than done.
After all, since the All-Star break, Carter's field goal percentage has dipped from 44.2 percent to 37.1 percent, while his 3-point shooting has fallen from 44.2 percent to 31 percent.
And his scoring has dropped from 10.9 points per game to 8.4. In the first half of the season, Carter scored in double figures 17 times in 29 games; he's done it 12 times in the past 29 games.
The Mavs need more. We saw why against Houston.
When Carter plays well offensively, it spreads the court, making it easier for Nowitzki and Terry to operate.
Teams still must respect Carter's offensive prowess.
They must guard him at the 3-point line because he can hit that shot. If they don't, Carter remains capable of soaring to the basket and dunking or swooping in for a layup.
When he's involved in the offense and making an impact, it means a fewer possessions on which Nowitzki and Terry are the focal point, which should make each more effective in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs like to post Carter up against smaller guards because of his array of low-post moves, and they even used him on some pick-and-rolls against the Rockets.
The result: a terrific offensive performance from Carter.
At times, Carter's alter-ego, "Vinsanity," still makes appearances. So does his other alter-ego, "Half-Man, Half-Amazing."
The reality, however, is the Mavs just need their 35-year-old backup shooting guard to show up each game from here on out.
If he does, they'll be a much tougher out in the playoffs.