DALLAS, Dec. 14 (Ticker) -- Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard showed the Phoenix Suns still have some work to do when it comes to interior defense.

Nowitzki and Howard each enjoyed huge games as the Dallas Mavericks posted a 102-96 victory over the Suns.

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In the second meeting between the teams since they staged an exciting offensive series in last season's Western Conference semifinals won by the Suns in six games, the Mavericks made it 2-for-2 this season.

The Suns have tried to make more of a commitment to defense this season, acquiring the rugged 6-9 Kurt Thomas in a deal with the New York Knicks. However, they are missing the 6-10 Amare Stoudemire until at least February due to a knee injury.

Nowitzki and Howard demonstrated that Phoenix's defense still is a work in progress. Nowitzki collected 29 points and 13 rebounds and Howard had 15 and a career-high 18 rebounds in his second game back after missing eight contests with a sprained right ankle.

"It's great to have (Howard) back," Nowitzki said. "He's one of our most active players on both ends of the floor. He's looking good. He's looking like the normal Josh, the regular Josh. He's all over the place, jumping over the rim and it's great to see."

Led by Nowitzki and Howard, the Mavericks held a 52-30 advantage in points in the paint and a 54-44 rebounding edge.

"We all know they play a small lineup with Amare out," Nowitzki said. "I think we did a great job of getting down and getting some people post positions, taking it to the basket. They don't really have a shot-blocker down there. We worked the offensive glass pretty good with Josh, myself, Damp (Erick Dampier) and everybody. I think when they go small, you've got to punish them inside a little bit and I thought we did a decent job of that."

"They have a big team and that's their game," Suns coach MikeD'Antoni said. "It's predicated on size, that's their strength."

In the first half, Nowitzki scored 14 points and Howard 12 as the Mavericks opened a 52-44 lead. Dallas took the lead for good at the 4:05 mark of the first quarter, although Phoenix did make things interesting down the stretch.

"It was exciting, but we didn't quite have enough," D'Antoni said.

Normally a starter, the 6-7 Howard was especially effective in the first half, when he made 5-of-7 shots and grabbed nine rebounds in just 13 minutes.

"I just went out there and tried to do what I could to help my team," Howard said. "I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent, but I just have to do what I do to help this team win."

A pair of free throws by Steve Nash, who scored 20 points, pulled the Suns within 99-96 with 1:16 remaining. But Nowitzki made two free throws 27 seconds later, and the Suns missed their final four shots.

Jason Terry added 23 points for the Mavericks (16-6), who bounced back from Monday's home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers to win for the sixth time in seven games.

"We have a long way to go," Nowitzki said. "So far we've done all right. We beat some good teams. We showed some progress on defense every once and a while. We're not consistent enough yet, but we're right up there with everybody else. I don't think there's one team that we have to be scared of. We can beat anybody at home or on the road. I think we have a chance in every game."

Dallas was able to win despite making just 18-of-32 free throws.

Shawn Marion had 23 points and 19 rebounds for Phoenix (13-8), which has lost three straight following a nine-game winning streak. The Suns did not have their first three-game losing streak last season until dropping six in a row in January.

Phoenix lost its eighth game last season in its 39th game January 17.

"It happens, it's part the game," Marion said. "You got to look at closing this road trip 2-1. It's a three-game road trip right now and we need to go 2-1."

Marion made four 3-pointers but missed one with 1:54 remaining that would have tied the game at 97-97.

After the Suns pulled within 52-50 early in the third quarter, the Mavs received a boost from Marquis Daniels, who scored nine points in an 13-5 surge that rebuilt the lead to double digits.

During the spurt, Daniels was flagrantly fouled by Thomas. He left later in the period with a strained neck.

A Dallas native, Thomas was loudly booed when he fouled out with under three minutes remaining. He finished with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.

Marion's jumper with 3:44 left in the third quarter pulled the Suns within 68-64. But Howard and Nowitzki each made tough jumpers in the closing moments of the quarter that ended with the Mavericks holding a 77-70 lead.