DALLAS -- A playoff spot, 50 wins and a second successive tight victory against an elite team.
Just a few weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks didn't seem capable of pulling off any of those. Now, they're doing it all.
Dirk Nowitzki immediately answered a banked-in, game-tying 3-pointer from Deron Williams by running down the court and swishing a 3 of his own with 0.9 seconds left, giving Dallas a 97-94 victory against the Utah Jazz and two nice bonuses -- a clinched playoff berth and win No. 50.
"How do you leave the MVP wide open? It's unbelievable," teammate Jason Terry said.
"I heard people say we wouldn't even make the playoffs, but now we're in," Terry added. "Tonight, we took another step in the right direction. We have to treat all these games like playoff games. We have a long way to go but winning games like these is big for us."
Nowitzki scored 32 points and Terry had 21, all coming in the second half. The duo scored 25 of Dallas' 30 points in the fourth quarter. They had to step up because Josh Howard left in the third with a bruised right knee. He hurt it on Sunday running into Shaquille O'Neal, then aggravated it in the first half. He tried coming back at the start and end of the third quarters, "but couldn't do much," he said.
"I'm going to get some rest and be ready to get back out there," Howard said. Dallas will play Saturday in Portland and Sunday in Seattle, then return home for the season finale Wednesday against New Orleans.
The Mavs don't have to do much scoreboard-watching between now and then. This victory, coupled with a loss by Golden State, locks up a playoff spot. Dallas has a two-game edge on Denver for the No. 7 seed.
Getting to 50 victories is significant, too. The Mavs have done that and made the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons. San Antonio is the only other team that can make the same claim, though the Spurs have nine in a row.
San Antonio also has four titles in that span, while Dallas is seeking its first. That's why the club made the bold move of trading for Jason Kidd in February. The deal was starting to look like a mistake when the Mavs were skidding into late March, especially when Nowitzki went out with ankle and knee injuries.
But Kidd started asserting himself and Dallas has taken off, winning six of the past seven, with victories against Phoenix and Golden State in that span.
"We're coming together more and more, especially on the defensive end, and on the offensive end we're playing well and making a lot of shots," Nowitzki said. "We're starting to build our confidence. If we keep going like this, we're going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs."
Mehmet Okur had 19 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, while Williams had 18 points and 12 assists. He was 7-for-16 after going 6-for-24 in his previous two games. Andrei Kirilenko had 15 points and Carlos Boozer only 10 points and five rebounds.
The Jazz clinched the division in their previous game, so they're only playing for seeding, knowing they can finish no worse than fourth. Still, they had won four in a row and seven of eight.
After trailing by 14 early, Utah made things interesting. Over the last 16 minutes, there were 14 lead changes and eight ties, with neither team leading by more than five points.
Williams hit a leaning 3-pointer with the shot clock running out to put the Jazz up 89-88 with 2:32 left. Dallas went back in front when Kirilenko was called for goaltending on a layup by Terry.
After Erick Dampier blocked a jumper by Boozer, the Mavs burned a lot of clock with a possession that featured two balls knocked out of bounds off Utah -- and no fouls called despite lots of bodies flying. Finally, Dallas got a 9-foot jumper from Nowitzki for a 92-89 lead.
Then Williams went by Kidd and dunked, with a referee calling a foul and ruling the shot good with 11.5 seconds left. Williams headed to the line for a tying free throw, but the officials huddled and decided the foul came before the dunk, so they took it away. Terry celebrated by high-fiving fans.
Williams made both free throws to get Utah with 92-91. Then Terry made two free throws with 9.4 seconds left to put Dallas up by three.
Williams answered with a 3 that thwacked the backboard and tied it at 94. With George covering him tightly, Williams went down after shooting in hopes and hoped to get a chance for a four-point play.
"I think I was just trying to flop a little bit," Williams admitted.
The Jazz either thought the Mavs would call time or were just admiring Williams' shot. Regardless, they didn't get back on defense. Dallas took advantage, with Eddie Jones feeding Nowitzki on the left side and him nailing the go-ahead 25-footer. He ran away screaming and grabbing his shirt.
"He was wide open," Sloan said. "Who else was going to shoot?"
The Jazz had one last chance, but Williams' shot off an inbounds play didn't come close, with Nowitzki making it tougher by flying toward the point guard.
- This was the first time the teams met since an early March game in Utah when Nowitzki hit Kirilenko, sending the Russian to the hospital and earning a one-game suspension for the German. There were no hard feelings, though, with Kirilenko the first person Nowitzki slapped hands with and hugged at midcourt before tipoff.
- Jones hit the 1,542nd 3-pointer of his career, tying Tim Hardaway for No. 5 on the career list.