Dallas 97, Utah 94

DALLAS, April 10 (AP) -- A playoff spot, 50 wins and a second straight tight victory over an elite team.

Just a few weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks didn't seem capable of pulling off any of those. Now, they're doing it all.

Dirk Nowitzki immediately answered a banked-in, game-tying 3-pointer from Deron Williams by running down the court and swishing a 3 of his own with 0.9 seconds left, giving Dallas a 97-94 victory over the Utah Jazz and two nice bonuses -- a clinched playoff berth and win No. 50.

"How do you leave the MVP wide open? It's unbelievable," teammate Jason Terry said.

"I heard people say we wouldn't even make the playoffs, but now we're in," Terry added. "Tonight, we took another step in the right direction. We have to treat all these games like playoff games. We have a long way to go but winning games like these is big for us."

Nowitzki scored 32 points and Terry had 21, all coming in the second half. The duo scored 25 of Dallas' 30 points in the fourth quarter. They had to step up after Josh Howard left in the third with a bruised right knee. He hurt it on Sunday running into Shaquille O'Neal, then aggravated it in the first half. He tried coming back at the start and end of the third quarters, "but couldn't do much," he said.

"I'm going to get some rest and be ready to get back out there," Howard said. Dallas plays Saturday in Portland and Sunday in Seattle, then returns home for the season finale Wednesday against New Orleans.

The Mavs don't have to do much scoreboard-watching between now and then. This win, coupled with a loss by Golden State, locks up a playoff spot. Dallas has a two-game edge on Denver for the No. 7 seed.

Getting to 50 wins is significant, too. The Mavs have done that and made the playoffs for eight straight seasons. San Antonio is the only other team that can make the same claim, though the Spurs have nine in a row.

San Antonio also has four titles in that span, while Dallas is seeking its first. That's why the club made the bold move of trading for Jason Kidd in February. The deal was starting to look like a mistake when the Mavs were skidding into late March, especially when Nowitzki went out with ankle and knee injuries.

But Kidd started asserting himself and Dallas has taken off, winning six of the last seven, with victories over Phoenix and Golden State in that span.

"We're coming together more and more, especially on the defensive end, and on the offensive end we're playing well and making a lot of shots," Nowitzki said. "We're starting to build our confidence. If we keep going like this, we're going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs."

Mehmet Okur had 19 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, while Williams had 18 points and 12 assists. He was 7-of-16 after going 6-of-24 in his previous two games. Andrei Kirilenko had 15 points and Carlos Boozer only 10 points and five rebounds.

The Jazz clinched the division in their previous game, so they're only playing for seeding, knowing they can finish no worse than fourth. Still, they'd won four in a row and seven of eight.

After trailing by 14 early, Utah made things interesting. Over the last 16 minutes, there were 14 lead changes and eight ties, with neither team leading by more than five points.

Williams hit a leaning 3-pointer with the shot clock running out to put the Jazz up 89-88 with 2:32 left. Dallas went back in front when Kirilenko was called for goaltending on a layup by Terry.

After Erick Dampier blocked a jumper by Boozer, the Mavs burned a lot of clock with a possession that featured two balls knocked out of bounds off Utah -- and no fouls called despite lots of bodies flying. Finally, Dallas got a 9-foot jumper from Nowitzki for a 92-89 lead.

Then Williams went by Kidd and dunked, with a referee calling a foul and ruling the shot good with 11.5 seconds left. Williams headed to the line for a tying free throw, but the officials huddled and decided the foul came before the dunk, so they took it away.

Williams made both free throws to get Utah with 92-91. Then Terry made two free throws with 9.4 seconds left to put Dallas up by three.

Williams answered with a 3 off the backboard and tied it at 94.

When the Jazz didn't get back on defense, Dallas took advantage, with Eddie Jones feeding Nowitzki on the left side and him nailing the go-ahead 25-footer. "He was wide open," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "Who else was going to shoot?"

The Jazz had one last chance, but Williams' shot off an inbounds play didn't come close.

Notes: Dallas tied the season series 2-2. ... Mavs F Eddie Jones had some wardrobe malfunctions in the first quarter. Checking in for the first time, he peeled off his jacket and his jersey came with it, leaving him in a tank-top undershirt. As the crowd murmured, the public-address announcer said, "Everybody stay calm." But the Mavs were hit with a delay-of-game warning. Ref Steve Javie was laughing as it was announced. Then on Jones' first play, he fell out of bounds and his left shoe popped off. ... Johnson said Jerry Stackhouse (groin) might play 10 minutes Sunday in Seattle, but probably won't play until the season finale Wednesday at home against New Orleans.

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