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Despite distractions, Mavericks turn away Hornets

DALLAS -- They are purportedly tuning out the coach. They are definitely generating unsavory, ill-timed headlines. They are also undoubtedly wondering just how they let Jannero Pargo shake loose for 30 points in the biggest game of the season.

Yet you have to give this much to the teetering Dallas Mavericks: They've never let Chris Paul win a game in their building.

Never, ever.

The smallest MVP candidate in circulation hasn't been denied much in this storybook season, but he's still waiting for his first W as a pro in Big D. Reasonable as it seemed to expect that breakthrough to finally come Friday night -- with all the various dramas weighing down Avery Johnson, Josh Howard and the rest of the Mavericks -- Paul surprised us all by responding to some desperate hounding from the Mavs by submitting a couple of 2-for-9 shooting halves.

Combined with an MVP game from Dirk Nowitzki and and high emotion from the home team that the other Hornets likewise couldn't match, Dallas had just enough to secure a 97-87 win in Game 3 which realistically saved its season.

Saving Johnson's job is another matter. There's a growing expectation within the Dallas organization and around the league that not even coming back to win this series would be enough to rescue that, given the depth of the Mavs' slide since they came within two wins of the championship under Johnson in 2006. In his last 13 playoff games, Johnson is just 3-10.

It'll certainly take more than one victory, furthermore, to shield Howard from the unwanted glare he guaranteed himself after stunningly choosing the afternoon before such a crucial game to spend nearly a half-hour discussing his offseason marijuana use on ESPN Radio's local affiliate.

The Mavs have, however, succeeded in giving us a series by slicing their deficit to 2-1 … and they've managed to give Paul something to ponder between now and Sunday night's Game 4. Although it's difficult to imagine Paul shooting 4-for-18 again, it's reasonable to assume that the Hornets A) are well aware that the franchise doesn't have a win in this city since (no misprint) 1998 and B) know well that their little dynamo is 0-6 here, 0-3 this season and 0-2 in the last 10 days.

Not that you should expect Dallas to do any crowing about that. Johnson made the right (some would say overdue) call by moving Jason Terry into the starting lineup ahead of Jerry Stackhouse -- and Terry duly supplied the energy at both ends to make Paul work far harder than he did in his two New Orleans masterpieces -- but numerous Mavs were careful to say that Paul merely missed shots he usually makes.

"First of all," Johnson said, "we didn't shut down Chris Paul."

"We're just trying to making it as hard as possible for him," Terry said. "Contest his shots and see what happens. He's a great player and you're not going to stop him. But as long as we limit the guys around him and not let [Paul] get 30 points and 20 assists, then we put ourselves in a good position to win. And that's what we did tonight."

Never known as a defender, Terry does at least have the speed to stay near Paul and spare Jason Kidd (eight points, 11 boards and six assists) from full-time Paul duty. The Mavs also committed to backing off Paul on his pick-and-rolls and daring him to beat them from outside, which proved to be another wise choice when Paul and Hornets forward David West combined to shoot 10-for-38. Dallas was even faster to the rebounds and loose balls, zoomed to a 23-4 edge in fast-break points and somehow held the Hornets without an alley-oop until Paul and Tyson Chandler connected on their go-to play late in the fourth quarter.

"They came out with a Game 7-type mentality," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "I thought our guys came out with just a Game 3 mentality.

"But I would love for those guys [Paul and West] to get 38 more shots Sunday," Scott continued. "I just don't think between the two of them they'll [only] make 10."

Probably not. Nor can Dallas expect the sort of free-throw parade that sustained them offensively as much as Terry's 22 points and Nowitzki's 32-point, 19-rebound, six-assist brilliance.

The Mavs went to the line 22 times in the third quarter alone. They missed as many free throws in the period -- seven -- as New Orleans attempted. With 4:30 to go in the quarter, Dallas had attempted 18 free throws to the Hornets' two.

The Mavs, in other words, really should have won by more than 10, even allowing for Pargo's career night.

An exasperated Paul, asked to explain such a heavy free-throw disparity, turned quickly to West as they sat side-by-side at the interview said: "You comment."

"You comment," Paul said, turning quickly to West as they sat side-by-side at the interview podium when someone asked to explain the free-throw disparity.

But give the Mavs this much: After a Game 2 surrender that suggested -- loudly -- that this team is no longer scrapping for/responding to Johnson, Dallas didn't buckle on an evening it had ample opportunity to blame a lack of focus on off-court distractions. Stackhouse played only seven minutes after revealing a recent verbal exchange with Scott that prompted the veteran swingman to call Scott "a sucker in my book," but Howard's 18 points were passable under the circumstances, even if he needed 16 shots and 10 trips to the line to get them.

Now to see if the Mavs can deflect the drama one more time at home, extend Paul's Dallas drought and send the Hornets back home with some real doubt.

"Every year, every playoff run, we always look and find things [like this]," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said when it was his turn to address the various headlines in circulation about his team.

"When you win, they're nothings. And when you lose, they're everythings. That's just the nature of the beast."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.