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Houston bolts to a big lead it does not relinquish

DALLAS (AP) -- There was the 3-pointer several feet behind the
arc, with the shot clock starting to buzz and a hand in his face.
Then there was the baseline dunk that followed and, soon after, a
swished 15-footer that helped protect a shrinking lead.

Yet as much as Tracy McGrady dazzled, it was the clutch baskets
by his supporting cast that showed why the Houston Rockets feel so
good about their playoff chances.

McGrady scored the majority of his 34 points while the Rockets
were building a big early lead, then Mike James and Jon Barry made
it hold up in the fourth quarter, preserving a 98-86 victory over
the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of their first-round series
Saturday.

"I feel this is my time," said McGrady, who also had six
assists and five rebounds. "I'm more confident than ever and I've
got my team feeling the same way."

McGrady has never made it out of the first round in his career,
going 0-for-4 and stung most by a blown 3-1 lead in his last
postseason, two years ago in Orlando. This is his first season on
the Rockets, who have been bounced in the opening round their last
three playoffs. They last won a series in 1997, when the lineup
featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley.

This season's mix of McGrady, center Yao Ming and a bunch of
hardscrabble veterans already was thinking big. A solid victory --
and a team history of being 17-1 when winning Game 1 of a series --
has them even more excited. Game 2 is Monday night in Dallas.

"We believe," McGrady said. "We believed before this game."

The Rockets broke it open early, turning a tie at 14 into a
39-20 lead early in the second quarter. They were still up by
double-digits until late in third, then the Mavs got within 75-71
with 9:16 left on three free throws by Jerry Stackhouse.

That's when James, the only player on either roster with a
championship ring, having won with Detroit last season, made three
straight shots, hitting two jumpers and a wild layup around Dirk
Nowitzki. Barry followed with a 3-pointer, the Rockets were back up
84-73 and their lead wasn't challenged again.

In the locker room afterward, James slipped on his gaudy ring,
which he doesn't wear often -- but is now "to let everybody know
this is what it's all about."

"There are a lot of deserving guys here that don't have one,"
he said. "I'm just trying to be one piece of the puzzle to help us
get there."

Houston acquired James at the trade deadline. Barry and David
Wesley arrived in December. All are part of a rotation of players
who understand their role -- like Dikembe Mutombo having eight
points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes because Yao was limited to
20 minutes because of foul trouble.

"Tracy's been playing at such a high level the last couple of
months. We're just here to try to support him and give him the
chance to do the things that we need to do to win," Mutombo said.

Counting a surge to close the regular season, Houston has won
eight straight.

In losing their home-court advantage, the Mavs also ended a
nine-game winning streak and a nine-game home winning streak. It
was their first home loss under coach Avery Johnson and just their
third in 19 games since he replaced Don Nelson.

"We haven't had many games where we were poor defensively and
offensively," Johnson said. "Nobody said this was going to be a
sweep for anybody. I doubt that very seriously."

As much as McGrady burned Dallas off the pick-and-roll, the Mavs
also were hurt by Nowitzki having more turnovers (six) than field
goals (five).

Nowitzki still scored 21, but it took him 19 shots. He was just
1-of-10 in the second half, looking nothing like the guy who
outscored McGrady 53-47 in December.

"I was too tense out there," Nowitzki said. "I forced a lot
of stuff. I didn't let the game come to me and I didn't help make
my team better. It was bad timing to have one of my worst games of
the season."

Josh Howard and Jason Terry each scored 17 for Dallas, and
Stackhouse added 14. Despite making it close late, the Mavs kept
themselves from matching the biggest comeback in team playoff
history by making just 4 of 21 shots in the fourth quarter.

In the final minute, Johnson gave referee Joey Crawford an
earful and kept chattering while walking off the court. Crawford
turned away laughing, which sent Johnson hustling back at him. A
Houston official pulled Johnson away.

"When I won a championship years ago, he refereed that final
game," Johnson said. "I was just telling him how much I
appreciated it."

Game notes
Houston's Clarence Weatherspoon went from expected starter
to not playing. Ryan Bowen took his place and had four points in 31
minutes. ... Dallas scored 16 points in the first quarter. It was
the lowest-scoring period for the Mavs in 10 games, since their
last loss, when they had 16 and 14 the first two periods against
Cleveland. ... So much for watching the NFL draft: Fox broadcaster
and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman sat near center court
and got a big ovation when showed on the overhead monitor.