DALLAS • J.J. Barea and the Dallas Mavericks are hot at the right time. The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, are going in the wrong direction.
Barea added another clutch performance to the best stretch of his National Basketball Association career on Wednesday, and the Mavericks buckled down for a crucial 88-86 win over the Rockets at the American Airlines Centre.
Dallas (40-38) won their fifth game in a row and took a two-game lead over their Southwest Division rivals Houston (38-40) going into the last four games of the regular season. The Mavs and Rockets are locked in a three-team race with the Utah Jazz (39-39) for the final two Western Conference play-off spots.
The victory also allowed Dallas to split the four-game season series with Houston. The Rockets would have taken the series and, more importantly, a play-off tie-breaker with a win.
Barea scored a game-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including 4-for-7 on three-pointers, two days after being named Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career. He added eight assists and five rebounds.
"It was vital," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of the guard's performance. "We had some other guys that had some struggling shot-making nights, and my message to the guys is we have to stay persistent and keep going hard."
As big as Barea was on the offensive end, a defensive play by Dallas' long-time top gun helped the Mavericks hold on.
Dirk Nowitzki, immersed in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, stripped the ball from James Harden while the Rockets shooting guard was driving to the basket with Dallas holding a one-point lead in the final seconds. The Rockets scored only 15 points in the fourth quarter.
"It was fun," Barea said of the close duel. "Dirk made a big play at the end, but it was a team win, and a great defensive game."
Dallas have held each of their past five opponents to fewer than 90 points.
Harden scored 26 to lead the Rockets, but he shot only 8-for-22 and committed a game-high six turnovers. Rockets centre Dwight Howard had 14 points and 16 rebounds.
Mavs guard Wesley Matthews scored 16 points and guard Devin Harris had 10 points off the bench. Nowitzki had seven points on 2-of-7 shooting and pulled down six rebounds.
Houston lost for the sixth time in nine games to fall to ninth in the West. "I don't think there is anyone on this team that lacks confidence," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza insisted. "Everyone has different personalities, but lack of confidence, I don't think that's something that we do."