Howard goes off to help Mavs beat Clippers

LOS ANGELES -- The Dallas Mavericks didn't miss Dirk Nowitzki nearly as much as the Los Angeles Clippers missed Zach Randolph.

Josh Howard had 29 points, nine rebounds and a career-best seven assists, leading Dallas to a 98-76 victory Sunday while Nowitzki served a one-game suspension.

"Overall, the team came together," Howard said. "Once we found out about Dirk not playing, we had to come in tighter and just be a better unit without him."

The suspension was announced by the NBA about 3 hours before the game. Nowitzki, the Mavericks' leading scorer and rebounder, received a flagrant-2 foul and an automatic ejection in the fourth quarter of Friday night's 97-88 loss at Utah. He took a backward swing at Matt Harpring with a closed fist and hit him in the face, after he and the Jazz forward got tangled up under the basket.

"It was not surprising, just because of the way the rule is written," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "We had contingency plans, based on whether or not there was a suspension, so it wasn't like it ruined our preparation. We had a feeling this could happen. But, for the record, I don't believe it was an intentional thing. I think it was a reactive thing."

Nowitzki, the league's MVP two seasons ago, averaged 31 points in the other two meetings with the Clippers this season. The missed game will cost him $164,344 in salary. Nowitzki missed only two games in each of the previous three seasons, including a one-game ban for his hard foul against Utah's Andrei Kirilenko.

Despite the absence of Nowitzki and his 8.9 rebounds per game, the Mavericks held a 53-38 advantage on the glass. Five of their players had eight or more rebounds, including Erick Dampier, point guard Jason Kidd, James Singleton and reserve Brandon Bass.

"Everybody stepped up and helped us rebound with Dirk out, and we also got some at the offensive end and some putbacks," Kidd said. "I think we were prepared for the possibility of Dirk not being there. It gave other guys an opportunity to play, and they took full advantage of that."

Singleton, who spent his first two seasons with the Clippers, started in Nowitzki's place and got 11 points and eight rebounds in 24 1/2 minutes.

"We had to do a lot of things by committee today with Dirk being out," Carlisle said. "Josh Howard was just great in all phases and hit timely shots during the whole game. Josh was our star, in terms of points and all of that, but everybody was just working together, trying to find a way.

"The other thing that was really important was that we had to defend. We paid attention to it today and were committed to it. Bass and Singleton stepped up and had big games. It's a quality win for us."

Howard came in averaging 17.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists through his previous 15 games this season. This was his eighth game back in the lineup after missing the previous 11 because of a sprained left ankle.

"I thought what was big for Josh today was that he found the open guy and made all the right plays," Kidd said. "It was a big game mentally that he could get under his belt. It showed him he doesn't always have to shoot it."

The Clippers also played without their leading scorer and rebounder. Randolph, who bruised his left knee during last Monday's 97-75 loss to Toronto, was sidelined along with center Chris Kaman (left arch), reserve guard Ricky Davis (left knee) and rookie guard Mike Taylor (broken right thumb).

"We need our team to be 100 percent healthy to play at our highest level," point guard Baron Davis said. "We need to play with more intensity and put out a better vibe so that we start to click on the court. Every team goes through their ups and downs. We need to get on track and put forth a better consistent effort."

Marcus Camby returned to the Clippers' lineup after missing the previous game due to his father's death, scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Al Thornton also had 16 points.

For the third straight game, Los Angeles never held a lead. Howard scored 14 points in the third quarter, including a 17-footer that capped an 11-4 run and gave Dallas a 63-44 cushion with 5 1/2 minutes left in the period. Los Angeles got no closer than 13 before Dallas ended the game with an 11-2 run.

"This really shows the absence of our low post game, with Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph both out," coach Mike Dunleavy said. "Many of our shots were forced, and that may have been due to the lack of conditioning from the time off."

The Clippers missed their first seven shots and were 4-for-17 from the field in the opening quarter, enabling the Mavericks to build a 24-13 lead. Davis came up empty on his first six attempts before hitting a 20-footer that cut Dallas' lead to 48-36 with 10:26 left in the third.

Game notes
Fred Jones, who signed with the Clippers as a free agent Sunday, scored eight points in 21 minutes. Jones and Randolph were teammates before. Portland traded them to the Knicks along with Dan Dickau on June 28, 2007, for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. ... Kidd's interception of Camby's pass midway through the first quarter was the 2,113th steal of his career, breaking a tie with Alvin Robertson for eighth place. ... Among the crowd of 16,685 was former Clipper Cuttino Mobley, who announced his retirement on Dec. 11 because of a heart condition just three weeks after he and Tim Thomas were dealt to the Knicks for Randolph and Mardy Collins.