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Mavs win eighth game in nine, close gap on Spurs in West

DALLAS (AP) -- With the Minnesota Timberwolves sending most of
their players after offensive rebounds, the Dallas Mavericks
decided to send most of their guys the other direction.

It worked -- for Dallas, that is -- as Devin Harris and Josh
Howard led a series of fast breaks early in the fourth quarter that
sent the Mavericks rolling past the Timberwolves 102-95 on Sunday
night for their eighth win in nine games.

Coach Avery Johnson is trying to change Dallas' identity from a
scoring machine to a team that wins with defense. In practice
Saturday, he stressed how defensive stands can turn into easy
baskets. Once he saw the mismatch in strategies at the start of the
fourth quarter, he reminded his players of what to do and they
responded nicely.

"We just went out there and did what he wanted," said Howard,
who scored seven of his 23 points in the final period.

Harris had three of his six assists in the fourth quarter,
including a handoff to Adrian Griffin for the layup that put the
Mavs ahead for good. Harris also scored seven of his 14 points in
the fourth, making all three of his shots to help Dallas go
11-of-16 for the quarter.

"Devin makes a lot of things happen for us," Mavs star Dirk
Nowitzki said. "He's a great finisher. He's going to be our point
guard of the future. I like the way he's progressing."

Nowitzki had 19 points, seven rebounds and a season-high four
blocks as Dallas capped a long homestand by going 4-1, all against
teams they were expected to beat. The Mavericks are a game behind
division rival San Antonio for the best record in the Western
Conference.

The Timberwolves got 28 points from Wally Szczerbiak and Kevin
Garnett added 20 points, 16 rebounds and five assists, but
Minnesota still extended its longest losing streak of the season to
four.

The previous three losses were by a combined five points and
this looked like it would be another tight one when the
Timberwolves scored 32 points in the third quarter and tied it at
70 early in the fourth. The rally must have sapped them, though, as
Dallas answered with an 11-3 run, then an 8-0 burst after Minnesota
again got within four.

Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey was mainly disappointed with the
way his team started -- missing its first four shots and shooting
6-of-19 in the first quarter. The Wolves scored only 16 points in
the first quarter and 18 in the second to trail by nine at
halftime.

"I thought Dallas took us to the woodshed, especially in the
first half," Casey said. "We didn't come out like we were on a
three-game skid."

Minnesota heads home for its next four games, starting
Wednesday.

This was the first of three games in 21 days featuring versatile
big men Nowitzki and Garnett.

They weren't matched up too often, but there was one memorable
sequence in the second quarter. Nowitzki, fresh off a big defensive
stand, was wide open for a 3-pointer on the left wing. Garnett
raced at him, but Nowitzki got it off in time and managed to draw a
foul. Nowitzki backed away pumping his fist after swishing the 3,
then made the free throw for a rare four-point play.

Dallas limited Garnett to 13 shots, only three in the fourth
quarter.

"We have to have more distribution from other guys stepping
up," Casey said.

The game started horribly, with the teams combining to miss
their first nine shots. The ninth was an airball by Minnesota's
Michael Olowokandi on a possession that began with Casey screaming,
"Calm down."

Szczerbiak came through with the first field goal, 2:37 into the
game. It wasn't much better in the second quarter, with the Mavs
starting 2-of-7 and the Wolves going 1-of-7.

Minnesota shot 35 percent for the first half. The only
consolation for the Timberwolves was that their 32 points at
halftime topped the 29 they had the previous game.

"Horrible is the only word I have for it," Szczerbiak said.
"We have to come out aggressive and set the tone."

Game notes
Dallas took a 36-35 lead in the all-time series. ...
Mavericks G Darrell Armstrong, an avid Washington Redskins fan, had
some fun with the crowd in a pregame address. After wishing
everyone a safe and happy holiday season, he added, "How 'bout
them Redskins!" Considering the Redskins had just beaten the
Dallas Cowboys 35-7, there was a loud mixture of laughs and boos,
even from German import Nowitzki. Johnson and Mavs owner Mark Cuban
said Armstrong was fined $1,000 for the stunt. ... Minnesota G
Richie Frahm (ankle) missed his third straight game. ... Dallas G
Marquis Daniels (strained neck) missed his second straight game.