Yet, Dirk Nowitzki is still the reigning MVP, and he reminded Howard and Johnson of it Monday night.
Nowitzki scored 11 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter, including a surprisingly rare 3-pointer and a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to help send Dallas past Howard and the Orlando Magic 111-108.
"He was tremendous -- but, you know, we've had a lot of people be tremendous against us," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Dirk's a great player, but everybody can score on us."
The Magic fell to 12-4 on the road, with the other defeats coming at San Antonio, Phoenix and Milwaukee. The Mavericks won for the fifth time in six games.
"I think we're taking a step in the right direction," said Nowitzki, who has cracked 30 points in three of his past seven games. He also had 11 rebounds and four assists.
Howard had been doing whatever he wanted lately, putting together back-to-back 30-point, 15-rebound outings. He scored 11 of the Magic's first 13 points in this game and had 16 after one quarter, showing off his thunderous dunks, high-arching floaters and even a bank shot.
Then Johnson challenged center Erick Dampier to make things tougher on Howard. Johnson also gave Dampier help by often sending a second defender over. Plus, the guards worked harder to keep the ball from getting to the big man.
It all worked to perfection as Howard went from 6-of-8 in the first quarter to 3-of-8 the rest of the way, scoring only six points over the final three quarters. He actually was shut out in the second and fourth quarters. As if that wasn't bad enough, Howard cut the side of his right hand on one of his few baskets, a standard-shaking alley oop.
"We just stuck with the game plan," said Dampier, who had eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks. "We just wanted to limit his touches and contest his shots."
Despite Nowitzki's success and Howard's struggles, this game was still decided in the final seconds.
The Magic played from behind most of the night, but never folded, not even after a nifty stretch by Nowitzki put the Mavs up 93-85 midway through the fourth. Their final rally began with a basket by Hedo Turkoglu that trimmed Dallas' lead to 105-101, then a 3 by J.J. Redick got Orlando within 107-104.
Orlando's Jameer Nelson trimmed it to 107-106 with a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left, then Nowitzki answered with a pair from the line to stretch the lead back to 109-106.
The Magic thought they had tied it at 109 when Keith Bogans nailed a long jumper over Nowitzki's outstretched arm with 3.5 seconds left, but officials correctly ruled that his right toe was on the 3-point line, keeping Dallas ahead by a point.
"I thought it was a 3," Nowitzki said. "I didn't see his feet because I was trying to contest it. I'd say it was a little bit of a break. In this league, you've got to have a little luck, too."
Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse made a pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to three, but Orlando still had one last chance to tie it -- a long, running 3-pointer from the right sideline by Keyon Dooling as time expired. The arena got real quiet as everyone watched the ball float toward the rim, but it banged between the iron and the backboard and popped out.
"You wouldn't take that shot normally, but at the end of the game, I thought we gave ourselves a chance," Dooling said.
After Howard dominated early, Nowitzki came back with seven consecutive points in a stretch that began right after Howard checked into the game following a rest. Nowitzki took over again midway through the fourth, following a tough one-hander with an open 3-pointer. While he's known for his long-range shot, it was his first 3-pointer in four games and only his 19th in 25 this season. Maybe that's why he let out a ferocious celebratory punch.
"I don't know why my 3 ball is not going in," Nowitzki said. "That's something I'll continue to shoot when it's there. Hopefully as the season progresses I can make enough at a higher percentage."
"We don't guard anybody," Van Gundy said.
Turkoglu scored 26, half coming in the fourth quarter. Rashard Lewis had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Nelson had 13 points and five assists.
- Orlando has made more than 50 percent of its shots in the past two games, but lost both.
- Dallas has won eight of 10 against Orlando.
- The Mavs sent second-year swingman Maurice Ager to the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League, a step backward for the former first-round pick who started three games this season. "He needs minutes and I don't have any minutes for him," Johnson said.