Dirk Nowitzki is getting closer to making his debut for the Dallas Mavericks, though they'll certainly need more than just his presence in the lineup to improve one of the NBA's worst defenses.
A day after getting the good news that Nowitzki is on the mend, the Mavericks will have a serious challenge against one of the league's highest-scoring teams Thursday night as they look to avoid a third straight loss to the visiting Miami Heat.
Nowitzki has been recovering from offseason knee surgery and took a major step forward by participating in full-contact practice drills for the first time Wednesday. Though he said there's no timetable for his return, he's hoping it will be shortly after Christmas.
"We'll just see how it goes. I mean, this is the first day we're stopping, pushing off, moving and we'll just see how it reacts," Nowitzki told the team's official website. "Get at least a couple practices under my belt, but there's no real date set, so we'll just have to wait and see how the knee responds to the first couple of workouts."
While the Mavericks (12-13) sure could use the franchise's all-time leading scorer, it's their defense that has caused a good portion of their struggles. They rank near the bottom of the league by allowing 101.5 points per game and have given up fewer than 90 only once.
The offense carried Dallas in a 107-100 home win over Philadelphia on Tuesday, as the Mavs shot 54.2 percent after going winless on a three-game road trip.
O.J. Mayo scored 26 points and Chris Kaman added 20 while combining to score 17 of the team's final 19 points. Kaman hadn't logged fourth-quarter minutes in the previous five games.
"We try to involve those guys in a lot of things because they're both playing well," coach Rick Carlisle said. "(Mayo's) aggression was really the key."
Not only will Nowitzki not be available, but Dallas won't have starting point guard Derek Fisher in the lineup due to a strained right knee. Fisher will miss three games after getting hurt in the first quarter Tuesday.
The Mavericks won their third straight at home to begin a two-game homestand before hitting the road for tough tests at Memphis, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
"It was important for us to come home and get a win," Mayo said.
Dallas had won nine straight regular-season home matchups with Miami before LeBron James scored 37 points and Dwyane Wade added 26 in a 105-94 win last Christmas Day to open the lockout-shortened season.
The Heat swept the season series with a 106-85 victory March 29 and will seek their first three-game regular-season winning streak over the Mavericks since beating them 16 straight times from 1992-1999.
James has been the catalyst for a Miami offense averaging 103.1 points, becoming the first player to score at least 20 points his team's first 22 games since Utah's Karl Malone in 1989-90 after netting 22 in Tuesday's 103-92 win over Minnesota.
"We're getting better every night," said James, who added 11 assists, seven rebounds and four blocks.
Wade scored a game-high 24 points for the Heat (16-6), who won despite being outrebounded 52-24.
"You better be strong in other areas of the game," Shane Battier, who hit three 3-pointers off the bench, told the team's official website. "That's a not an easy to way to win a game. But you have to do your work elsewhere to make up for it."
It marked the second-fewest rebounds they have grabbed in franchise history.
"We made up for it with our energy," Wade said.
James is averaging 30.4 points in his last seven regular-season games in Dallas.