Nowitzki scores 21 as Dallas' win streak reaches nine

DALLAS (AP) -- The Dallas Mavericks were expecting a tough game from the Chicago Bulls.

Those expectations diminished once they led by 30 points midway through the third quarter.

Seizing on that letdown, the Bulls whittled their deficit to five and still were within six in the final minute, yet it wasn't enough. Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard helped the Mavericks hold on for a 98-94 victory Tuesday night that stretched their winning streak to nine.

"I thought we relaxed a little bit, and you can't do that against good teams," said Nowitzki, whose 21 points included a 3-pointer that gave Dallas some much-needed breathing room in the closing minutes. "We failed to keep executing on offense and the next thing you know it turns out to be a tough ballgame. It feels tough right now, almost just like a loss, but at least it's a win."

The Mavericks moved back into a tie with San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference (35-10). While their defense remained on a roll -- allowing fewer than 100 points every game in all nine wins and 16 of their last 20 games -- they got knocked out of whack in the third quarter.

After holding Chicago to 34 points in the first half, the Bulls matched that in the third quarter, thanks mostly to a 16-0 run that began with easy baskets sparked by a switch to a zone defense.

The closest they came was 89-84 with 5:20 left. Then Howard, who led Dallas with 22 points and nine rebounds, answered with a 5-footer from the baseline and Nowitzki followed by losing his defender on a pick-and-roll and swishing an open 3, bumping the lead back to 10.

Chicago could have gotten within three points, but the Bulls missed four straight 3-pointers coming out of a timeout with 33 seconds left. Two of the misses were Kirk Hinrich, who led the comeback by scoring 26 of his 28 points in the second half.

"Something went off in our heads -- maybe we were playing not to get embarrassed," Hinrich said. "If we started the game the way we played the second half, we're going to be tough to beat. We have to come out with more energy and focus."

This was a rough way for the Bulls to open a seven-game, 14-day trip. The loss also ended their four-game winning streak and marked their 15th loss in 16 games against Dallas.

"We were sleepwalking through 2½ quarters," Chicago coach Scott Skiles said. "Then in the third quarter we became more aggressive. We had no focus and then for some reason the switch was flipped and we got back in it."

Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon scored 14 for the Bulls. Tyson Chandler added 12 points and 16 rebounds, and Hinrich had seven assists.

Jason Terry scored 13 points for Dallas despite having missed his first eight shots, and Keith Van Horn added 12 points.

Dallas was helped by its performance at the free-throw line: 31-of-36. Chicago was 22-of-31.

Mavericks coach Avery Johnson built up the Bulls before the game, noting they were among the four best teams in the league over the last week-plus, according to the team's statistical analysis. By halftime, those rankings didn't seem worth the paper they were written on.

After not having trailed their last 11 quarters, the Bulls managed only a 2-0 lead. Dallas was up 8-3 after two minutes, prompting Skiles to call a timeout, and the Mavs stretched their lead to 32-16 before the opening quarter was over.

In the second quarter, the Mavs seemed like they were showing off.

Devin Harris blocked a 3-pointer just as it left Gordon's hands, then dove out of bounds to keep the ball alive. It eventually got to Marquis Daniels for a nifty layup that featured a spin move between two defenders. Soon after, Chandler threw a pass that went off Gordon's head and turned into a powerful dunk by Daniels.

Dallas ended up leading 58-34 at halftime. Othella Harrington was the only Chicago player with more than one field goal and he only had three. The Bulls were shooting 29.3 percent, including 1-of-7 on 3-pointers, and were 9-of-17 from the foul line.

Game notes
With Detroit losing Tuesday night, the Mavericks have the longest winning streak in the NBA. ... Dallas finished January 13-2, setting a franchise record for wins in the month. The club also set a record in December. ... Chicago had cracked 100 points in six of its previous seven games. .. Dallas' 15-1 record against Chicago the last eight years doesn't make up for the 1-18 stretch that preceded it.