By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Apr 9 2009 10:35AM
DALLAS -- Whatever the motivation, one only had to look Josh Howard in the eyes to see the Mavericks wanted this game.
Make that his eye.
With his left eye shut and left nostril plugged, the much-maligned Mavericks small forward gave more than the blood he spilled after getting clocked in the first quarter. Howard and his teammates summoned the kind of effort that might catch the Lakers' attention. Or everyone else in the Western Conference.
Dallas walloped Utah by a resounding 130-101 count Wednesday night to move into a tie for seventh in the West. Both teams are 47-31 with four games left in the regular season. Utah owns the tiebreaker. Dallas owns a playoff berth ... and momentum.
"He looked pretty busted up," Dirk Nowitzki said of Howard, his teammate of six years. "But he came back and showed heart, and that's what we've been doing. We've been fighting here over the last couple of weeks to get in, and it's good to know that we made it, but we'd still love to move up."
Howard probably shouldn't be playing right now. Privately, he knows as much. His troublesome left ankle continues to swell up like a grapefruit after games, and he's headed for offseason surgery.
Howard also knows he probably shouldn't play more than 20 minutes a game, but he continues to push his ankle to the brink for those he shares the locker room with. He's missed 22 games on three different occasions because of the ankle, and another six with wrist injuries.
"By me being able to come back myself and give them what I can give them while I'm out there, that's what I'm doing," the former All-Star told NBA.com. "I think they're feeding a lot off me. Sometimes it takes bumps in the road to figure out you're the X-factor. I've really realized this year by being in and out that I need to be out there no matter what."
He was all over the court against the Jazz, even if he couldn't hit a shot. While the butterfly bandage strapped over his eye compliments of a collision with Jazz guard Ronnie Brewer probably had something to do with depth perception, Howard didn't have any trouble reading passing lanes. He racked up seven steals to go along with 13 points and eight rebounds in 27 long minutes.
The Mavericks' attempt to close ranks and rally around themselves may be their best chance of rattling any cages when the tournament starts. The season has hardly been drama-free. There were issues with new coach Rick Carlisle early, prompting an edict to keep any discontent in house. Mark Cuban threatened to blow the team up after a passionless loss to the Thunder.
Howard, himself, was at the center of several controversies last season and summer. He purposely and presently finds himself at a different center, and speaks with unflinching conviction.
"It's more of a team thing now," said Howard, his left eye bloodshot. "Us as players aren't focusing on what's going on in the front office or what's going on with coach. It's just us playing. That's the way it's got to be.
"We've been up and down all season trying to figure out rotations and stuff like that. No more worrying about why I'm not playing or why coach isn't speaking to me. We've got a job to do. For the most part, it's just us selling out for one another. That's what's happening."
Just last week, Dallas inexplicably fell at Memphis. This week, the Mavericks routed the two teams -- Phoenix and Utah by a combined 53 points -- sandwiched around them in the standings. "Peaking" was mentioned after the game.
"We just lost to Memphis a couple of games ago, so we don't want to get carried away," Nowitzki reminded following his 31-point showing. "But we've had two nice wins now and have to build on that."
The Hornets are up next. A home-and-away series with sixth-place New Orleans is on tap Friday and Sunday. The reeling Hornets (48-30) are only a game up on Dallas. Suddenly the No. 6 seed appears realistic, as the conference continues to open up behind the Lakers.
"It's a tossup," Nowitzki said.
Utah appears to be setting itself up for a quick tossout. The Jazz have struggled mightily on the road, with the latest outing continuing a season-long trend of futility. Getting blown out by Dallas drops their road record to 2-17 against teams with winning records.
The struggles outside of Salt Lake City are baffling.
"I wish I could explain a lot of things," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "If I could explain it, if I knew what was the problem that caused it, maybe we can turn it around."
Howard found his answer. With one eye.
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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