DALLAS -- Before Friday night's tip-off and before Houston Rockets forward Carl Landry's teeth gashed Dirk Nowitzki's right elbow, Rockets coach Rick Adelman praised the Mavericks' fast start, their perseverance without Josh Howard and then deemed them the team to beat in the Southwest Division.
"I think this is Dallas' division," Adelman said. "They've got all the talent, they're deep. They're the best team in our division and they're up there in the conference. I think this is a team that is very strong and is going to be there all year."
And then Nowitzki's elbow met Landry's grill with 9:28 left in the second quarter.
Five of Landry's teeth broke apart with pieces lodging underneath Nowitzki's skin, causing a deep laceration that required at least three stitches and has the Mavericks' leading scorer listed as questionable for Sunday's home game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There will come a time where we get it going at home and start putting together some great wins.
”-- Mavericks guard Jason Terry
Nowitzki, fouled on the play, managed to get to the free throw line and shot both attempts left-handed. He made one of two and then left the game and wouldn't return. His free throw gave the Mavs a 28-26 lead. Six minutes later, the Mavs, flailing offensively without their go-to-guy, trailed 44-33.
Dallas rallied late, got to overtime, but lost 116-108 in a wild game that included seven technical fouls, six on the Mavs and two each on Erick Dampier and coach Rick Carlisle, plus a promise from owner Mark Cuban to protest at least three of the officials' calls.
X-rays taken of Nowitzki's elbow were found to be negative. He'll be re-evaluated Saturday. With a laceration on his shooting elbow, who knows how many games, if any at all, Nowitzki will miss. Nowitzki has been known to return quickly from injury, mostly sprained ankles.
Nowitzki, who has carried the offensive load this season to the tune of 26.9 points a game, left with just five points, his lone single-digit endeavor of the season.
Although Dallas made a late charge after trailing 95-85 with 4:35 left in the game to send it to overtime, the Mavs were off-kilter offensively, shooting just 42.1 percent. At one point during the third quarter, J.J. Barea, who scored a team-high 23 points, was 8-of-12 from the field, while the rest of the team struggled at 14-of-50.
"That game was terrible, that's all I can say about that," said Jason Terry, whose cold shooting continued until he heated up late. "It was just a terrible game all around. We'll get it back together. There will come a time where we get it going at home and start putting together some great wins."
The Mavs (19-8) snapped a five-game winning streak and lost for the fourth time on their home court Friday as they began a brutal, 15-game stretch with 11 coming against quality opponents. The next three are at home. A win against the Rockets would have pushed the Mavs five full games ahead of the up-and-down Spurs and 5 ½ ahead of the Rockets.
But, the Mavs found little consistency on the offensive end where Nowitzki is always such a dominant focus and often a safety valve. Dallas applauded its late surge to get to overtime, but were not pleased with their uneven reaction to Nowitzki's absence.
"Finding a way to get to overtime over pretty steep odds is positive," coach Rick Carlisle said. "But, the way we played from start to finish really wasn't what we were wanting to do. That's disappointing. We've got good teams coming in here every night for a while. We're going to really have to do it as a team to win games."
Houston knows a thing or two about that. Yao Ming is out indefinitely and Tracy McGrady, although back in uniform for just the third game, played seven minutes and was a non-factor. Each night the blue-collar Rockets go to work they know they're in for a grind-fest.
Rockets reserve guard Kyle Lowry poured in a career-high 26 points and tied a career-high with five steals. Diminutive point guard Aaron Brooks had 25 points. The Rockets must get those types of performances to survive.
Just ask Adelman how much margin for error his club, whose tallest player is 6-foot-9 Luis Scola, has on a nightly basis.
"Not much," Adelman said bluntly. "We have to play hard. We have to have two or three guys really step up for us. We just don't have a guy, game-in and game-out, like Dallas has Nowitzki. You know he's going to be there every game. We're getting better at it, but we just don't have it right now."
Injuries have hit the Southwest Division hard in the first 20-something games and its helped the Mavs pull in front. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have all missed multiple games with various injuries and the Spurs' play has been erratic at best.
Hornets all-everything point guard Chris Paul missed eight games with a sprained ankle and the Hornets are one game below .500. The Mavs have had their own issues, particularly with Josh Howard who played in just his fifth game since a second return from offseason ankle surgery. And, of course, there are the scrappy Rockets.
None will feel sorry for the Mavs if Nowitzki misses time and cracks the door open for a tighter division race heading into the new year.
"You just never know with health," Carlisle said. "Things happen, can happen quickly."
The Mavs found out Friday that without Nowitzki they really aren't much different than their rivals from Houston. Now they just hope they won't be without their MVP for long. The slate doesn't get any easier. The next five opponents are Cleveland, Portland and Memphis at home, then at Denver and at Houston on New Year's Eve to face the Rockets one last time this season.
"It's not a one-man team. That's the beauty with this team is we've got so many guys who can put the ball in the basket and can play," said Jason Kidd, who had eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, 10 assists and 11 rebounds Friday. "It's a great opportunity for everybody to kind of pick up the slack or pick up what Dirk normally gives us and that's 20-something points and some rebounds, so it's an opportunity for everybody."