DALLAS -- Two weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks were dragging, facing questions about what happened to the team that won 67 games last season.
Dirk Nowitzki scored 31 points, including the Mavericks' final eight, giving Dallas just enough to hold off the Suns 108-105 on Wednesday night in yet another intense, entertaining game between the Western Conference rivals.
While the final score was close -- decided, in fact, when Nash airballed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds -- the Mavericks were in control all night. They never trailed, led by 17 at the end of the first quarter and were up by 14 midway through the fourth.
No matter how many times Phoenix rallied, Dallas always had an answer.
"It's starting to click," swingman Jerry Stackhouse said. "When we knew it was time to get serious, we've gotten serious. Quite frankly, in those early games, we didn't get serious. We thought we were going to kick it in gear and we didn't. Since we got focused and lit a fire under guys, we've been pretty good."
The Mavs have won four straight and six of seven, enough to tighten up the top of the West standings. Dallas is 18-9, narrowly behind Phoenix (18-8) and San Antonio (18-7).
Nowitzki is a big reason for the surge. This was his second successive 31-point effort and the fourth time he has scored in the 30s in the past eight games.
Afterward, though, he was thinking more about the narrow escape.
"We've got to do a better job at the end," he said. "We're fortunate to get the win. We got off to a great start, but then they got layups and three-point plays to get back in it."
This was the first meeting between Nowitzki and Nash since the big German was named MVP, which gave good buddies the past three awards. It also was their first meeting in Dallas since a double-overtime thriller in March, when Amare Stoudemire scored 41 and Nash scored Phoenix's final 10 points to snap the Mavericks' 23-game home winning streak.
This game was intense, exciting and even physical from the start, probably tempting many East Coast television viewers to consider staying up late to keep watching.
"It was wild and woolly out there," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Bodies were flying everywhere. I've got to give them credit, they got this one. They were the aggressors from the start, we came back, but we couldn't get over the hump."
Stoudemire started 2-for-10, but found a groove down the stretch, scoring seven of Phoenix's last nine. He was 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line in the fourth quarter and finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
Nash had 21 points, eight rebounds -- and eight stitches to close a gash in his chin opened by a stray elbow in the fourth quarter. That might explain why he had only three points in the period and why his last shot came up so short after making a move on Josh Howard to clear some room.
"I got a good look at it," Nash said. "But after the up-fake, I didn't have my feet set so it was short."
The Suns were coming off handing the Spurs their first home loss, but didn't get much carryover. They're in a 2-4 skid since a five-game winning streak.
"We need to get off to better starts," Nash said. "We have to be more consistent with our effort, especially at the start of the game."
Shawn Marion had 23 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. Grant Hill had only nine points and four assists, but they included a dunk over 7-footer DeSagana Diop and a perfect lob for a buzzer-beater by Marion at the end of the first half. Hill also defused a three-on-one fast break at the end of the first quarter.
Howard had 23 points and seven rebounds, and Devin Harris scored all 21 of his points over the first three quarters. Erick Dampier had eight points -- all in the first quarter -- plus 10 rebounds and five blocks. Nowitzki grabbed nine rebounds and Jason Terry had 13 points.
Although Dallas led 37-20 after one quarter, Phoenix didn't go away.
The Suns got within 64-63 early in the third quarter on a drive by Nash in which he spun backward and fed Marion for a dunk. Then the Mavs came back with seven consecutive points. Soon after, Stoudemire made back-to-back baskets, the second a wide-open dunk he savored by hanging on the rim. He walked away pounding his chest, screaming, "Let's go!"
- The action even extended into the stands, as a guy in a Phoenix jersey was dragged out by police late in the fourth quarter.
- The Suns' lowest-scoring first quarter of the season was partly because they had six turnovers and the Mavs had none. Well, Phoenix fixed that at the start of the second quarter, forcing turnovers on Dallas' first three possessions, turning the first two into fast break baskets.
- The Mavs often have humorous homemade film clips during timeouts. Several were Nash-and-Nowitzki-themed, including a Star Wars bit in which Nowitzki's character said, "We could've ruled the NBA together."