In the first three seasons after the creation of the Southwest Division, the Dallas Mavericks dominated the New Orleans Hornets, winning each game against them and finishing ahead of them in the standings each season.

After snapping their skid against the Mavericks earlier this month, however, the Hornets think 2007-08 could finally be the season to turn things around.

New Orleans looks to protect its lead over Dallas when the division rivals square off at American Airlines Center on Friday night.

Realignment brought the Hornets to the Western Conference before the 2004-05 season, putting them in the newly formed Southwest Division with Dallas. The Mavericks won the teams' next 12 meetings, extending their win streak over the Hornets to 21 games dating to 1999, when the Hornets were based in Charlotte.

This season's Hornets (14-8), however, don't look like the division doormats they've been in recent years. They've managed to stay reasonably healthy and play consistently behind the lead of third-year point guard Chris Paul - one of three opening-night starters who missed significant time last season due to injury.

This year's Mavericks (14-9), meanwhile, are equally hard to recognize. After winning a league-best 67 games last season, Dallas is in third place in its own division, trailing San Antonio and New Orleans.

The Hornets halted their losing streak against the Mavericks with a 112-108 overtime victory at home on Dec. 1. Paul had 33 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in that game, and Tyson Chandler added 21 points and 13 boards.

Paul is averaging 19.1 points, 6.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 50.4 percent from the field in eight career games against the Mavericks, but that was his first win against them.

"This is the last team in the NBA I had yet to beat and I finally beat them," he said. "For a while there, everybody in the organization almost thought Dallas was unbeatable. We showed we could do it. ... Enough is enough."

Dallas will likely need an improved defensive effort to recapture its form from last season. Coach Avery Johnson's typically stout defense is giving up 99.3 points per game.

"We have to be better defensively to win, especially on the road consistently," Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki told the Mavericks' official Web site. "We have to do it with energy, getting back in transition, contesting shots even though sometimes the guy might be open, you still have to go out there and do your best."

Dallas' defense was adequate on Wednesday, but the Mavericks shot just 38.5 percent in a 92-76 loss at Toronto. Nowitzki, last season's Most Valuable Player, was just 6-for-15 from the field and 1-for-4 from the free-throw line for 13 points.

"He just couldn't get it going tonight," Johnson said of Nowitzki, who's averaging 21.4 points - his lowest since 1999-2000 - and shooting 29.5 percent from 3-point range one season after making a career-best 41.6 percent from behind the arc.

Nowitzki hopes to rebound against the Hornets, who have also struggled defensively lately, giving up 101.6 points per game in their last five.

They were outscored 28-18 in the fourth quarter of a 105-99 loss against Denver on Wednesday.

"In the fourth quarter, they had more intensity," said Paul, who had 30 points and 12 assists for his 10th double-double. "We matched it for the most part, but for the last five minutes or so, we couldn't contain them."

That defeat was just the Hornets' third in 11 road games this season. They're visiting a Mavericks team that's 9-2 in Dallas, where the Hornets have dropped 11 straight visits.

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