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Dirk at center of Mavs' win over Thunder

DALLAS -- Necessity and a nightmare prompted Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to make the unconventional decision to start Dirk Nowitzki at center Sunday night.

After a disturbing dream about coaching against a Don Nelson small-ball squad, Carlisle awoke from his afternoon nap to a text message from head athletic trainer Casey Smith informing him that back spasms would sideline center Tyson Chandler against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Carlisle came up with a starting five that even Nellie would consider on the wild side: three guards, Chandler Parsons at power forward and Nowitzki pretending to be a rim protector.

"When Coach came up to me and asked me if I wanted to start at the 5, I thought he had a few beers to come up with that idea," Nowitzki cracked after the Mavs pulled out a 112-107 win before praising Carlisle for coming up with a creative way to attack one of the league's top defensive teams.

The game ended with a much more familiar sight: a clutch performance by a dominant Dirk.

"The least athletic front line we've ever had in the history of the NBA," as Parsons called his pairing with Nowitzki, gave the Thunder fits from the opening tip, which Nowitzki not surprisingly lost to springy Oklahoma City center Steven Adams.

Parsons scored 15 of his 26 points in the first quarter, taking advantage of Thunder bigs not used to defending dynamic playmakers on the perimeter. Nowitzki had his best shooting night in weeks, matching his season high with 30 points, knocking down 8-of-13 field-goal attempts and all 12 of his free throws.

Shooting guard Monta Ellis has been the Mavs' closer all season long, but he had an off night and missed the final two minutes after spraining his left ankle. Nowitzki was more than willing and able to fill the void, scoring 10 points in the final 4:59 and mixing in a clutch assist and rebound during a critical 12-second span when the Mavs pushed their lead from one to five points.

"We needed that," said Ellis, who scored 18 points on 6-of-20 shooting. "He was the only one besides Parsons that had a good rhythm."

Ellis has been arguably the league's premier closer this season, while Nowitzki has been happy to slide into a complementary role in crunch time. Dirk, however, remains a dangerous threat down the stretch.

According to NBA.com, Nowitzki is tied for 10th in the league with 49 points this season in clutch situations, as defined by the final five minutes of games when the score is within five points. He has done it efficiently, scoring those points on 57.1 percent shooting in 52 minutes.

So it's not like Nowitzki's clutch scoring flurry -- which came on two midrange jumpers and six free throws -- should have shocked anyone.

"He's still got it," Parsons said of his 36-year-old teammate. "That just shows you that he's still able to play at an elite level. To be able to hit those shots and really carry us all game long and stay healthy and continue to work as hard as he is, it's so impressive.

"We're obviously going to need that. We can't just rely on Monta to finish every game. I've got to stay aggressive at the end of games, but to have him hitting shots like that is unbelievable."

It also helps to have a point guard capable of harassing perhaps the NBA's most explosive player with the game on the line. That's one of the primary reasons the Mavs pulled the trigger on the trade for Rajon Rondo.

Rondo, like Nowitzki, is a proven champion whose ability to impact close games during winning time was on fully display Sunday. Rondo had eight of his 15 points and half of his six rebounds in the fourth quarter, but his most impressive work was his dominant defensive effort against Russell Westbrook down the stretch.

"He was just dialed in," Carlisle said of Rondo, who also dished out seven assists. "He was playing with a level of intensity that we needed. I mean, it's hard. That guy's coming down at 100 miles an hour and they keep changing the angles of pick-and-rolls. Somehow he was able to navigate over a lot of those screens.

"There aren't many guys in the game that can do that. It's experience, it's intuition and it's also desire. Right now, there's nobody in this league that's harder to guard than Russell Westbrook."

It seemed like Westbrook was on the verge of taking over the game when he scored on back-to-back possessions to give the Thunder the lead with a little more than four minutes remaining. The Thunder point guard's offensive stats the rest of the game: no points, two missed field goals, two turnovers.

"It's what it's all about, being out here in the West," Rondo said after helping hold Westbrook to 18 points on 6-of-23 shooting. "I love to compete. I love the challenge."

That gives Rondo something significant in common with the Mavs' starting center Sunday night.