DALLAS -- For 2½ quarters Sunday night, the Dallas Mavericks were putting on the feel-good game of the season, a free-flowing, highly entertaining brand of blowout basketball -- at home, no less -- featuring their reconfigured cast and a rebranded image.
So what were four Mavs starters and sixth man Jason Terry doing on the floor sweating out the final minutes with Monday's tip at Charlotte a mere 19 hours away?
Saving their collective hide, that's what.
"We screwed that up," Dirk Nowitzki said.
So the killer instinct part still needs work as evidenced by the Mavs' 108-100 victory over the New Orleans Hornets.
Credit New Orleans for sticking with it after being run ragged to the point of trailing by 25 points with 6:22 left in the third quarter. Led by Chris Paul's fill-in, impressive rookie Darren Collison, the Hornets whittled the deficit down to four with 2:44 to play.
Typically, Nowitzki handled the bailout process, scoring five of his game-high 36 points in the final 58.9 seconds. He got defensive help in crunch time from a steal by center Brendan Haywood that set up Nowitzki's awkward 9-footer in the lane to put the Mavs up by six.
Caron Butler then stripped Collison, one of his four steals in the game, with 51.9 ticks to go. Haywood, who kept a possession alive at the two-minute mark with one of his five offensive rebounds, flushed Butler's miss at the rim to finally close the books on the Mavs' seventh consecutive victory.
The victory, however dicey thanks to seven third-quarter turnovers and a stretch of 12 consecutive missed field goals, moved Dallas past Utah and into the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference.
"Look, we're still early in the process," coach Rick Carlisle said. "It's only Caron's sixth game, and he's missed the last two. It's a busy next six or seven days, so there's a lot more games in a short period of time, and I don't mind."
The next one is Monday at Charlotte, no longer a pushover at home with a 20-7 record. The Bobcats, now featuring Nowitzki agitator Stephen Jackson, haven't played since Friday after wrapping up a four-game road trip. It will be one of the quickest turnarounds of the season and a tough way to nail down an eighth straight win.
"Hey, you can look at it and whine about it or you can batten down the hatches and go at it," Carlisle said. "I think at this point we're ready to go at it."
That's because Mavs basketball is fun again. A re-energized Jason Kidd is leading a revived offensive attack, one that is pushing the tempo, moving the ball, sharing it and striking from all areas of the floor.
Butler scored all 19 of his points in the first three quarters, utilizing an efficient midrange game. Eighteen of his points came on two-point jumpers and drives to the rim. Kidd continues to score at a pace never before seen during his second stint in Dallas, which started two years ago. Although he failed to score after his third 3-pointer gave him 13 points at the 9:25 mark of the third, his team-high 10 points in the first quarter got things off to a rollicking start.
He has now scored in double digits for a season-high eight consecutive games. The most he had strung together previously was five.
With Kidd's newfound scoring touch, his teammates are finding increased freedom to operate and defenses are finding it difficult to focus double-teams.
"It's going to make Dirk's and everybody else's jobs a lot easier because Jason Kidd's making shots," guard J.J. Barea said. "So they're going to have to pay attention to him."
Against New Orleans, the Mavs took an early 17-0 advantage in fast-break points with everyone touching the ball and making the extra pass to the open man. It's quite the contrast from an offense that too often bogged down into isolation sets prior to the trade that brought Butler and Haywood from the Washington Wizards.
"We weren't pushing the ball like we are now," said Shawn Marion, who finished several fast breaks Sunday. "We're making a conscious effort to really push the ball."
Over the past two seasons with Josh Howard so often out of the lineup and inconsistent when in it, the Mavs depended on Nowitzki and Jason Terry to have big scoring games. With Butler's midrange game and his ability to drive, plus Haywood's ability to catch and finish, the Mavs' scoring options have multiplied as have the areas on the floor from which they can score.
"I think we are so talented offensively now where we shouldn't really force any bad shots because we have so many options, so many weapons out there that if you don't have a clean look, just swing it, pick-and-roll it, let somebody else make a play," Nowitzki said. "It was fun to watch there for like 2½ quarters, and then we got stuck there in the third.
"But, sky's the limit. We just have to keep working together and see where we can take it."