How it happened: The Mavs struggled to get stops, so their only chance was to win a Wild West shootout, which they almost managed to pull off despite a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs had a chance to tie the score or take the lead on the final possession, but Jose Calderon (2-of-12 from the field) missed a pair of 3-pointers.
But the odds of the Mavs winning a shootout decreased significantly when a scorching Nowitzki sat down with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter. That's a normal resting time for the 35-year-old Nowitzki, but these were extraordinary circumstances. Nowitzki had just hit a 3-pointer to tie the score, capping a 13-4 run in which he had 11 points.
The Rockets responded to Nowitzki's resting by immediately going on a 9-2 run to take the lead for good.
An outstanding outing by Nowitzki wasn't enough for the Mavs to keep up with the Rockets, who shot 55.4 percent from the field and had seven players score in double figures, led by Chandler Parsons' 26 points. The Mavs need an absolutely epic performance from the big German with the rest of the Dallas starters struggling.
Nowitzki scored 38 points on 13-of-21 shooting and grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds. The Mavs' other four starters combined for only 22 points and 14 rebounds.
Sixth man Vince Carter scored half of his 22 points in the fourth quarter to give the Mavs a chance to steal the win. Carter had six points during a late 11-1 run that cut the Rockets' lead to two with 22.2 seconds remaining.
What it means: The Rockets, who are fifth in the Western Conference standings, salvaged a split of the season series and improved to 31-17 overall. Dallas dropped to 26-21 after its fourth loss in the past six games. The Mavs are still in eighth place in the West, but they are only a game ahead of Memphis, pending the outcome of the Grizzlies' late game against the Sacramento Kings.
Play of the game: Jeremy Lin grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast for an uncontested layup to stretch the Rockets' lead to nine with 5:01 left. It's not as if the Rockets had numbers in transition. The Mavs simply never stopped the ball, so Lin drove down the middle of the court, splitting Monta Ellis and Carter near the free-throw line as they lazily reached instead of getting in front of Lin.
Stat of the night: Nowitzki, who became the 13th player in NBA history to score 26,000 career points late in the first half, had his fifth 30-plus-point game of the season and third in a row against the Rockets.