DALLAS, April 23 (Ticker) -- Many were wondering how the Houston Rockets were going to guard Dirk Nowitzki. They should have been wondering how the Dallas Mavericks were going to guard Tracy McGrady.

McGrady scored 34 points and helped harass Nowitzki as the Rockets surprised the Mavericks, 98-86, in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series.

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The fifth-seeded Rockets won a road playoff game for the first time since 1998 and took home-court advantage away from the fourth-seeded Mavericks, a dark horse for the NBA championship.

With power forward Juwan Howard sidelined by a heart ailment, the Rockets do not have a viable defender for Nowitzki, a 7-footer with the ballhandling and range of a guard who led Dallas to 58 wins this season.

Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy opted for 6-8 Ryan Bowen, a journeyman forward who appeared to be overmatched. But Bowen battled, managed his fouls and got some help from McGrady as they held Nowitzki to 21 points on 5-of-19 shooting with six turnovers.

"We tried to make him make shots rather than give him easy buckets," Bowen said. "Switching, giving different looks, me guarding him for a while, Tracy guarding him. The two of us together and just everybody helping.

"When he was driving, guys were coming in. I think the combination of those things helped tonight. A lot of times you get on him too close and you give him some different angles and what not. He's the type of player if he's rolling, shooting the ball, you've got to get up on him and make him put it on the ground and feel happy to get the fouls. There's no one way to play him. You just have to give him different looks."

Nowitzki made things a bit easier by often settling for jump shots. He had just one basket in the second half and appeared tentative, as did many of his teammates.

"I didn't make them pay enough," Nowitzki said. "They had a small lineup. If a (small forward) is guarding me I've got to work the post a little more than I did. I think I was too tense out there. I was forcing a lot of stuff. I didn't let the game come to me or make my team better. It was bad timing for me to have one of my worst games of the season but I've got to recover from it.

"It's not on Dirk at all," Dallas guard Jason Terry said. "Shooters shoot. He's going to continue to shoot the ball and we know he's going to make shots. That's what he does. He's going to make shots -- more than he misses -- so we're not concerned about that."

While Nowitzki was a bit passive, the same could not be said of McGrady. Looking for his first career playoff series win, he was aggressive throughout, making 14-of-27 shots from a variety of angles.

"I wanted to come out and get a victory tonight," McGrady said. "I wanted to come out and get a good start and provide a spark in the offensive game. I tried to knock down shots. Everything was clicking for us."

"He's very aggressive," Terry said. "You look at the history of McGrady ... he's probably averaging about 30 points in Game 1 since he's been in the playoffs. We knew he'd come out aggressive."

McGrady had a pair of 3-pointers in a second-quarter surge that gave Houston a 39-20 lead. He sank a reverse layup and a pair of jumpers in the third period to repeatedly turn back a charge by Dallas.

In a two-minute span of the fourth quarter, McGrady had a running bank shot and two three-point plays to make it 92-78 with three minutes remaining.

"We tried a couple of different things on him tonight," Mavericks center Erick Dampier said. We defended the pick-and-roll the way we defended it the whole season. He's a good player. He hit a lot of tough shots."

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Monday in Dallas.

"Everybody expects (Nowitzki) to come back Monday and give an unbelievable effort," Bowen said. "We've got to look at things we did on both ends of the court and see what we can improve for Monday."

"We did some great things but we also have a lot of work to do," McGrady said. "We need to stay focused because we haven't accomplished anything yet."

The Rockets won despite a subpar game from Yao Ming, who had 11 points and eight rebounds but was plagued by foul trouble. They might not have won without reserve guard Mike James.

A member of Detroit's 2004 championship team, James scored a playoff career-high 16 points. After Dallas closed to 75-71 with 9:16 to play, James made a jumper and driving layup, then answered Jerry Stackhouse's basket with a 19-footer for an 81-73 advantage.

"Our bench is going to be very important throughout the whole playoffs," James said. "Everyone is going to key on Tracy, everyone is going to key on Yao, and we expect big things from them every night. What's going to change the game probably is the guys coming in (off the bench). We just have to continue to stay focused and just go out there and try to fight."

Terry and Josh Howard scored 17 points each and Stackhouse added 14 for the Mavericks, who shot just 35 percent (24-of-68).