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Marion pulls double duty due to injuries

DALLAS -- Put Shawn Marion at the top of the list of Dallas Mavericks players counting down the days until Josh Howard's ankle finally allows him to play again.

Marion is in a compromising position these days without Howard, who was expected to finally provide stability at shooting guard at both ends of the floor, and with defensive specialist Quinton Ross still nursing a bad back.

It was never more evident than in Saturday's 80-75 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Marion, brought in to play small forward and slide Howard to the backcourt, is being asked, without much choice for coach Rick Carlisle, to often guard the opponent's top scorer, and provide scoring punch from an unusual spot for him, on the block.

Against Atlanta, the 6-7 Marion had to chase sharpshooter Joe Johnson. And despite Johnson's team-high 31 points in 44 minutes, Marion didn't do a bad job defending him. Johnson made a bushel of tough shots, including an 18-foot turnaround swish over Marion and Erick Dampier in the fourth quarter for a 76-69 lead with 4:25 to go.

Sticking on Johnson proved exasperating because Marion said he often got cross-matched getting back on defense because Hawks forward Marvin Williams was guarding him on the offensive end. Johnson scored seven of Atlanta's first nine points for a 9-2 lead as the Hawks forced the Mavericks to play from behind nearly the entire game.

All that work on the defensive end took a toll on Marion at the other end, where he's also performing out of his comfort zone by playing on the block and posting up. Marion had just six shot attempts in the game and none during the 8:44 he played in the fourth quarter, when the Mavs went nearly eight minutes without a field goal.

"It is what it is. If I've got to do it, I've got to do it," Marion said of his adjusted roles. "You have to make them [the opponent] work, too. Sometimes it's easier for any offensive player to have free range on the offensive end if they don't have to play no defense on the other end; it's a free night, easy range."

Dallas scored 82 points in Friday's sloppy loss at Memphis and followed it with easily their lowest output of the season Saturday, punctuated by 16 turnovers and being outscored in the paint, 34-10. Even when Atlanta went stone cold, going without a field goal in the final 7:19 of the first half, the Mavericks failed to take advantage until late in the period and still went into halftime trailing, 41-40.

The Mavericks, who dropped their third home game of the season Saturday, will drag their first losing streak of the season into Tuesday's home game against Steve Nash and the rejuvenated Phoenix Suns (15-5), the league's second-highest scoring team at 110.2 points a game.

"It will be a fun game, but especially after we just lost two in a row, no matter what we've got to find a way to win that game," said Dirk Nowitzki, who poured in a game-high 32 points, but needed help. "No matter what's going down, we've got to find a way to get a win and get back on track, so it's going to be a big game for us."

The Mavs took Sunday off and get back to practice on Monday. They know Tuesday night that they won't have Howard against the Suns, and Ross, whose 6-6 frame and ability to defend in spurts would be a welcome addition, might not be ready to go. Carlisle called Ross close.

"We know that injuries are a part of this, so we've got to deal with that," Carlisle said. "I'm not making excuses, but right now we're having to kind of go off the seat of our pants with it."

When Marion fell into the Mavericks' laps after Hedo Turkoglu at the last minute decided to sign with Toronto, making Marion available, Dallas believed moving the lanky Howard to shooting guard gave it its best option at the position since Michael Finley.

Last season was a constant revolving door and the Mavs jettisoned Antoine Wright in the offseason. Dallas hoped they would have a healthy Howard ready to go, but offseason ankle surgery has proved to be a difficult recovery.

Howard missed all of training camp and the start of the season. He returned on Nov. 7, only to be shut down for more rehab work after he limped around in his third game back at San Antonio.

Marion, who missed three games last month with a sprained left ankle that remains a bit of a nuisance, is averaging 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. Saturday marked the third consecutive game in which he attempted eight or fewer shots and the second in a row in which he scored in single digits.

With Dirk Nowitzki typically being the lone dependable scorer in the starting lineup on any given night through the injury problems, the Mavericks need more from Marion on the offensive end, which might only come when he can get some help on the defensive end.

"Well, I mean Josh Howard is our two-guard and he's hurt, so until then we're just going to have to band it together," Jason Terry said. "That is why we brought in Shawn Marion, so we could bring in Josh and move him to the two. Until he gets back healthy we're really not going to see the team we're capable of having."

Jeff Caplan covers the Dallas Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at jeff.caplan@espn3.com.