Kings beat Mavs, vault Hornets into playoff spot

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Ron Artest leaned, lunged, shoved and

slid through the second half, frantically trying every trick in his

considerable store to guard Dirk Nowitzki.

And he wasn't alone. With a remarkable group effort from a team

that's been allergic to defense for years, the Sacramento Kings

finally got over .500 for the first time this season.

Brad Miller had 17 points and 10 rebounds, Kenny Thomas scored

six points in the final minute and the Kings hung on for their 12th

straight home victory, 85-80 over the injury-depleted Dallas

Mavericks on Sunday night.

Artest scored 15 points for the Kings (32-31), who won despite

scoring just 33 points in a miserable second half. They still won

with a remarkable defensive game against Nowitzki, with Artest

leading a scheme featuring far more contact than the Mavs thought

was legal.

"We did what you have to do against an incredible player like

(Nowitzki)," Artest said. "It was a total team effort, because

one guy can't guard him. That's what we're going to have to do when

we get down the stretch and into the playoffs."

Yes, defense has the Kings on track for the playoffs -- something

that seemed impossible just 21 games earlier, when they acquired

Artest in the midst of their worst season since 1998.

With New Orleans' loss to New Jersey, the Kings moved into

eighth place in the Western Conference -- a half-game ahead of the

Hornets and a half-game behind the seventh-place Los Angeles

Lakers, who visit Arco Arena on Tuesday night.

"We're over .500 now, and that's really big, but we want to

keep thinking about the next step," said Thomas, who capitalized

when Dallas left him open in the final seconds. "We're still not

in yet. We can't get comfortable now."

Nothing was comfortable about this win. Artest has been in

plenty of these defensive dust-ups in the Eastern Conference, but

offense usually rules at Arco Arena -- particularly when the Mavs

are in town.

"They are a lot different now that they have Artest," said

Dallas' Jason Terry, who hit two big shots in the final

possessions. "They don't run the passing game the way that they

used to. ... We just didn't knock down our shots tonight. I don't

know if it was their defense or our lack of offense."

Nowitzki had 24 points and 13 rebounds for Dallas, which also

couldn't shoot straight in a defense-dominated second half. The

Mavericks couldn't overcome the absence of three injured regulars

and coach Avery Johnson, ejected in the third quarter for charging

the court to argue.

"We were right there, but it was just a tough shooting night,"

Nowitzki said after the Mavericks barely surpassed their previous

season-low of 78 points.

Miller's jumper with 1:39 left put Sacramento up 79-74 before

Terry -- who missed nine of his first 11 shots -- hit a 3-pointer and

converted a three-point play for Dallas.

But Thomas hit back-to-back jumpers, including a wide-open shot

with 29 seconds left that put the Kings up 83-80. After Marquis

Daniels and Terry missed open 3-pointers, Thomas hit two free

throws with 8 seconds to play.

Its three-game winning streak snapped, Dallas dropped back into

a tie with San Antonio atop the conference standings at 49-14.

Daniels scored 19 points and Terry added 14.

The Mavericks played without guards Adrian Griffin and Devin

Harris because of injuries, and forward Josh Howard only made it

through the first half before getting sidelined again by a sore

left hamstring that kept him out of the last four games.

But the Mavericks kept it close with strong defense against the

Kings, who went 3-of-20 and missed their last 10 shots of the third


Both teams struggled in the third -- but Johnson, owner Mark

Cuban and the Mavericks' bench were angered when three calls in

close succession went against Dallas. Referee Gary Zielinski hit

Johnson with a technical foul with 3:43 left in the quarter.

When the crowd roared, Johnson marched across the court to argue

with Zielinski, who walked away while calling a second technical

foul and ejecting the coach. Johnson quickly left the court without

even getting an argument with Zielinski.

"I wasn't trying to rally the team by getting ejected,"

Johnson said. "I think it was more just a difference of opinion.

We were dealing with things the whole game, and we thought that we

had a legitimate beef with the way they were playing Dirk. I guess

we were wrong."

Game notes
Kings G Kevin Martin hurt his shoulder late in the game,

but won't know the extent of the injury until Monday. ... The

Mavericks had won in seven of their last 11 trips to Sacramento.

Dallas is the only team to win at Arco Arena in each of the last

six seasons, including a 10-point win on Dec. 22. ... Dallas F

Keith Van Horn missed his fifth straight game with a sprained knee