Falling Rockets, rising Mavericks square off for second time

The Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets find themselves heading in opposite directions as they meet for the second time this season.

Dallas put a 20-point loss on Houston when they met Nov. 28 in Houston, and the Mavericks will bring a 10-2 home record into the second game of the four-game season series Saturday.

Houston (11-13), which was one victory short of the NBA Finals this past spring, has not found the same consistency this season. The Rockets have lost six of eight, the most recent a 118-91 blowout at Utah on Thursday in the second game of a three-game trip that ends Saturday.

The Mavericks (12-11) have won five of seven and nine of 12, including the first victory over the Rockets, although they also are coming off a decisive defeat, 132-106 on Wednesday at New Orleans.

It appears nerves are beginning to fray in Houston, which already has had two four-game losing streaks this season after having only one while taking the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the final game of the Western Conference playoffs.

“This sucks,” guard Eric Gordon, the 2017 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, told the Athletic after the game against Utah.

“We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude? Last year was the best year I’ve ever had being a part of a team. If we ever had a bad game as a team, you knew the next game we would blow somebody out. It didn’t matter who it was.”

The Rockets opened the season with a 19-point home loss to New Orleans and already had lost two games by 20 points and another by 19 before the 27-point drubbing in Utah.

The Jazz outscored the Rockets 38-11 in the third quarter, and the Rockets trailed by 37 points before clearing the bench.

“They swarmed us,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters. “They did what they’re supposed to do. They played great. They played hard. We didn’t. Pretty simple. They just beat us in every which way they could.”

The Rockets’ 1-2 punch of James Harden and Chris Paul were 10 of 27 from the field, 2 of 10 from 3-point range, and combined for 12 turnovers while playing just more than half the game.

Dallas played without starting point guard Dennis Smith Jr. against New Orleans, and Smith is listed as doubtful for Saturday’s game with a right wrist injury.

The Mavericks have won eight in a row at home, including victories over Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston, Golden State and Utah. They will finish their three-game homestand with winnable games against Orlando and Atlanta.

Luka Doncic started at point in Smith’s absence and had eight points, six assists and four rebounds in 22 minutes Wednesday, when the Mavericks could not recover from the Pelicans’ 69-point first half.

“We could not get it going from start to finish,” Dallas’ Harrison Barnes told reporters. “It was not a great night for us, but we have to flush it and keep moving.”

Dallas enters the game tied for the eighth spot in the Western Conference, 1 1/2 games ahead of 13th-place Houston.

“You can’t get too caught up looking at the standings,” Houston coach Rick Carlisle told reporters in New Orleans. “In the Western Conference, every game is going to have significant meaning all year long. That’s just the way it is.

“A lot of people complain about it, but there’s no bigger challenge in the NBA right now than playing in the West and being in that cluster of teams always trying to scratch and claw your way up a spot or two.”

Speculation that Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki would make his season debut against the Rockets turned out to be just that. Nowitzki is improving after undergoing April ankle surgery, but despite going through practice Friday is not quite game ready.

“He’s doing well,” Carlisle told reporters. “He’s playing three-on-three and getting better all the time.”