The stars came out to play one last time Thursday before it's time to shine at All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. Dirk Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady both took over in the fourth quarter, but the Mavs' superior supporting cast (hello, Jason Terry) helped deliver a 80-77 win in Houston.
Checking their numbers game
Vegas is all about big numbers. Here's a few to ponder from Thursday
• The LeBron free-throw watch continues. He made 18 of 22 -- his efficiency was a difference-maker in the win over the Lakers. He now sits at 68 percent. Free throw shooting corresponds nicely to academic percentages. Anything over 90 percent is an "A." Overall, LeBron's getting a "D" so far, but was clutch down the stretch on Thursday.
• Dallas has the leagues best record (44-9), but doesn't have any single player in the top five in scoring average, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal percentage. The Mavs' balance explains their success. Simple. Of course, there's no Celtics in the top five either.
• Nowitzki, the star whose high-shooting trajectory is reminiscent of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, is on pace for his best season in several key categories: assists (3.3), 3-point field goal percentage (41.5) and field goal percentage (49.9). Those numbers suggest an improvement in his shot selection and that he is making his teammates better. For all the nightly chants heard in various NBA arenas for MVP, the shout in Dallas seems most credible.
• Poor McGrady, who is admirably carrying the Rockets on his achin' back. Before gamely going down in defeat, he was whomped on the nose by Josh Howard -- this after getting cracked in the dome from an accidental Dikembe Mutombo elbow.
Wonder if pain explains his 69 percent free-throw shooting. He's a 75.4 percent career guy. His increased role as distributor might be demonstrated by the fact he's on track for a career-high in assists (6.2 apg).
• If nothing else, his elbows and right pointer finger should be headed to Springfield, Mass., someday. Mutombo, the 40-year-old sultan of finger-wagging, was sporting a bandage over his right eye after catching an elbow from Ron Artest on Tuesday. Yao's replacement's 7.1 rpg rate is his best since he had 10.8 in 2001-02.
• Mavs center Erick Dampier is on pace for his best shooting season, making 65.7 percent of his shots. That would make him tops in the league, but he's not averaging enough makes per game (3.0) to qualify for the league lead.
• Bryant's free-throw shooting sits at an impressive 86.7 percent, on pace for the best freebie year of career. It would be better than Michael Jordan's best year at the line, which was in 1986-87 when he made 85.7 percent. Kobe's at 83.7 overall; MJ finished as a 83.5 career FT shooter. By the by, MJ is the all-time points leader in the All-Star Game (262). Kobe sits at 13th with 149.
• Keep an eye on Sasha Pavlovic. The Cavs' forward is averaging 12.1 ppg for February. He hit a big 3 late in the win over the Lakers. He's only 23, in his fourth NBA season. Break-out alert.
• Which team's the best on the boards? None of Thursday's combatants. Your New York Knickerbockers are averaging 44.3 per game, a plus-4.9 differential. Thanks, David Lee.
• The Mavericks, who have won nine straight, will go for their third 10-plus win streak of the season against their ol' buddies, the Heat, on Thursday, Feb. 22, in Dallas.
Andrew Ayres is an NBA editor for ESPN.com.
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AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (26 points, eight boards) drives past Houston's Juwan Howard on Thursday in Houston.
Just back from Caesar's Palace, where I hung out with Charles Barkley for 15 minutes earlier this evening to discuss his upcoming race against referee Dick Bavetta.
Bavetta might actually lap Barkley in this race, which will consist of two and a half trips from baseline to baseline, ending at center court.
"I'd say they're cheating to make him win. They've done changed the length of the damn race three times. I didn't agree to it, they just showed up today and said we're lengthening the race," Barkley said. "He's probably in better shape than me, but not in a sprint."
February 16, 1972
Wilt Chamberlain of the Los Angeles Lakers became the first player in NBA history to reach the 30,000 point mark for his career during a 110-109 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Chamberlain also passed Bill Russell during the 1971-72 season to become the NBA's all-time leading rebounder.
-- ESPN Research
Mavs Take NBA's Best Mark (44-9) Into Break
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
While LeBron looks on, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives on Cavs center Scot Pollard. The Lakers head into the break with five straight losses.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Two nights before the actual dunk contest -- and assuming you can still have an actual controversy in what sadly ranks as the faded jewel of All-Star Weekend -- I'm told that Dwight Howard is rather steamed.
Reason being: Howard's request to have the basket raised on a couple dunks he had planned for Saturday evening has been denied by the league.
Orlando sources report that Howard has been practicing a couple wicked maneuvers that might inject this dying competition with the ingenuity/originality it desperately needs. One is a 360 throwdown with the rim hiked to 12 feet, two feet higher than regulation. The other sets the rim at 11 ½ feet and has Howard purportedly going between his legs with the ball in mid-air before flushing.
Utah Jazz executive Kevin O'Connor dishes with Chad about the future of the team and the possiblity of dealing Andrei Kirilenko before the trade deadline. Mehmet Okur, the pride of Turkey, is going to Las Vegas for the All-Star Game. Also topical: the rousing success of Deron Williams and Paul Millsap.
Earl (Washington, DC): The Phoenix Suns are still No. 2? So you don't see a jump shooting team that's not deep or big? You don't see a team that struggles big-time against the teams they'll be playing in the playoffs? Their awful record against winning teams says it all and everyone seems to be ignoring this. Have the Suns done anything to suggest that they'll make it out of the first round of the playoffs? They will go into another postseason with the same deficiencies that no team can really overcome: No depth and no size. You might be able to overcome one, but not both of these deficiencies. The Suns' record is fools' gold.
Committee's counter: Sorry, Earl. We still see a team that, when its top seven players are healthy, is better than the last two Suns teams, both of which reached the Western Conference finals. We also see a team that went into the All-Star break missing three players from that top seven: Steve Nash, Boris Diaw and Kurt Thomas. Which might have a little something to do with the Suns' recent slide.