MIAMI -- With three huge tests awaiting in the coming days, the Dallas Mavericks could have easily been lulled into overlooking the NBA's worst team.
They didn't, and will take a full head of steam into perhaps the defining week of their season.
Dirk Nowitzki scored 21 points before sitting out most of the second half, and Dallas stormed out to a huge early lead on the way to beating the hapless Miami Heat 98-73 Sunday night. Josh Howard added 15 for the Mavericks, who have won five straight overall and host three of the NBA's top clubs -- the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston and San Antonio -- in the next seven days.
"We feel like, at home, we should be ready," Nowitzki said.
"We had to come out and really be focused," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. "Guys really challenged themselves."
Earl Barron scored a career-high 21 for Miami, which set a season-low in points and is a league-worst 11-54. It was Miami's 10th loss by at least 20 points this season, and the Heat have lost a mindboggling 35 times in their past 38 games. Daequan Cook added 11 for Miami.
"The beginning of the game, it was like we were stuck in mud," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "We were not reacting to the ball. We were not reacting to drives. We were not reacting to anything."
Even with this five-game winning streak, during which Dallas has won by an average of 23.6 points, the Mavericks remain in seventh place in the loaded West -- yet are only 2½ games behind surging Houston for the conference lead.
"I wanted to get this team to a point where we can get some momentum," Johnson said. "Who knows? Maybe this is the right time. Maybe it's not. ... Things could change quite a bit in the Western Conference over the next week or 10 days."
It was a matchup of the teams who met for the NBA title just two seasons ago, when Miami captured the championship in six games.
But this was far from playoff-caliber.
Of the 12 players who were in uniform for Miami in the 2006 finals, only one -- Jason Williams -- played for Miami on Sunday. Trades, roster moves and a rash of injuries have completely transformed the Heat since they hoisted that championship banner, while Dallas still very much looks the part of a title-contending team.
And the Mavericks had it all working Sunday.
They scored the game's first nine points, made nine of their first 10 shots and had a 24-4 lead with 5:35 left in the opening quarter. Nowitzki and Stackhouse each scored eight points in that 6½-minute burst, while no Miami player had more than seven points in the entire first half.
"We know we have no room for error right now," Terry said.
Miami -- which played without starting forwards Shawn Marion (back) and Udonis Haslem (ankle) -- didn't have a player in double figures until Barron hit a 16-foot jumper midway through the third quarter, giving him 11 points and drawing the Heat within 67-43.
With the outcome not in doubt, Nowitzki and Stackhouse soon exited, and the rest of the Dallas starters quickly followed.
Miami fell to 6-28 at home, meaning it must go 5-2 on its own floor the rest of the way just to match the worst home record in franchise history, set in 1989-90, the team's second season.
"Every night, it's something else," Barron said. "It just keeps snowballing."
- The Heat are 0-8 in March, their third-worst start to a month this season. Miami started 0-11 in January and 0-9 in February.
- Heat forward Alexander Johnson left in the second quarter with a bone bruise on his right knee and didn't return.
- Mavs guard Tyronn Lue visited Miami's arena for the fourth time this season, with his third different club. He was also with Atlanta and Sacramento.
- Mavs forward Devean George returned after missing three games with back stiffness.
- From the like-it-matters department: According to the NBA, the Heat were officially eliminated from the playoff picture Saturday. Minnesota, Memphis, Seattle and the Los Angeles Clippers were already out of the postseason hunt.