HOUSTON, March 15 (Ticker) -- Thanks to Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks own the best record in the Western Conference.

Nowitzki scored 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Mavericks posted a 95-81 triumph over the struggling Houston Rockets, who received a huge game by Yao Ming.

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It was the 12th victory in the last 15 games for Dallas (51-14), which moved one-half game ahead of defending champion San Antonio (50-14) for first place in the Southwest Division and the best mark in the conference.

"It's kind of hard not to get caught up in the race," said Nowitzki, who recorded his 25th double-double. "You're half a game up, half a game down. There's pressure on every game now."

"Of course, you've always got (San Antonio) in the corner of your eye," said Dallas swingman Marquis Daniels, who scored 12 points. "Phoenix, too. Home-court advantage is very important in the playoffs."

Jason Terry scored 19 points and rookie Rawle Marshall added a season-high 12 for the Mavericks, who shot 52 percent (37-of-71) from the field to overcome the absence of forwards Josh Howard, Adrian Griffin and Keith Van Horn and guard Devin Harris, who are nursing injuries.

"We're obviously going through a tough stretch right now," Nowitzki said. "A lot of injuries, being on the road, fourth game in five nights. It's good we have a deep team. Rawle Marshall played great tonight."

"Rawle Marshall contributed big," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson added. "I don't know what's going to happen the next game, because he's a rookie. Nobody knows his name. I like it that way."

Yao had 36 points and 12 rebounds while Rafer Alston scored 18 points for the Rockets, who fell to 2-16 without injured superstar Tracy McGrady.

"During the game, I'm focused," said Yao, who is averaging 29 points and 13 rebounds since the All-Star break. "I'm trying to score or rebound or do whatever the team needs me to do."

"He's been playing phenomenal since the All-Star break," Nowitzki said. "His turnaround (jumper) is money."

Yao scored 27 points in the first half, which ended with Dallas holding a 57-45 lead. Nowitzki and Erick Dampier did an excellent job containing the 7-5 All-Star after the break, when he had 10 points and one rebound.

"We tried to give (Yao) different looks, meet him at the foul line, ride him out, sometimes double him," Dampier said. "Anybody can score if they get it low enough."

"We can expect much better from him defensively and on the boards," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "He had one rebound in the second half and was not active defensively."

Alston drilled a 3-pointer to draw Houston within 83-77 with 7:13 remaining before Dallas went on a 12-4 run to close the contest and improve to 3-0 this season against its intrastate rival.

Nowitzki accounted for eight points during the surge and knocked down a jumper to push the lead to 93-81 with 3:23 to go.

"My shot wasn't feeling great," said Nowitzki, who was 10-of-20 of the floor. "I tried to be more aggressive, get in the lane. I was lucky to get my own rebound once, went back up and got fouled."

The Rockets (29-36) have dropped three straight and fell 4 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers (34-32) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference.

Although Yao made 12-of-17 shots, his teammates combined to shoot just 34 percent (16-of-47).

"He's the best center in the NBA on one end now," Mavericks swingman Jerry Stackhouse said. "The team has to focus on him more than any center in the NBA, even Shaq."