The injury-depleted Mavs erased a 19-point deficit by holding the Cleveland Cavaliers to only eight points in the third quarter -- the fewest they've ever allowed in any quarter -- and kept rallying for a 91-87 victory Tuesday night, giving Johnson his record 66th victory over his first 82 games in charge.
Johnson helped inspire the comeback by calmly telling his players at halftime that he wanted them "to play like they're on the playground, it's 7-7, 8 is game and if you lose you've got to wait an hour to get back on the court."
"Everyone responded," said Jerry Stackhouse, who started the second half and was on the court throughout the comeback. "We knew it was just a bad first half."
Dirk Nowitzki and Marquis Daniels combined for 20 points during Dallas' 29-4 run from the opening minutes of the third quarter to the start of the fourth. The streak took the Mavericks from being down by 19 points to leading by six.
The Cavaliers never went back in front, although they were within 86-84 after a basket by LeBron James with 15 seconds left. The Mavs held on by making 5-of-6 foul shots and seeing Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas miss three straight tip-in attempts on one possession.
"The third quarter was a disaster," said James, who had 36 points and 12 rebounds. "They put pressure on us and we couldn't make shots. If we want to be an elite team, we can't let teams come back like that."
Nowitzki finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds, Jason Terry scored 20 points and Daniels had 17. Erick Dampier had seven points and 13 rebounds, plus made one of the biggest plays during the comeback, a clean block of a dunk attempt by Drew Gooden that left Dampier screaming with delight and teammates bumping chests.
"Any time you get a block like that, it sets a tone for the defense," Dampier said. "It seemed like we stepped it up from there."
Playing without starters Josh Howard and Adrian Griffin, and also missing key reserve Devin Harris, Dallas remained tied with San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference and hit 50 wins for the sixth straight season. The Mavs also swept East teams at home for the first time in team history, going 15-0.
Johnson was guaranteed of having the most coaching victories after the equivalent of a full season regardless of the result; the previous mark was 62 by Paul Westphal. Yet the way the Mavs played the first half, they seemed headed toward only his second two-game losing streak.
Dallas started undrafted rookie Rawle Marshall and even had him covering James. Fellow rookie Josh Powell joined Marshall on the court in the first quarter and the Mavs played like a ragtag bunch, missing not only shots but passes, too. They had a season-low 34 points at the break. Nowitzki missed 10 of his first 11 shots, while James and Ilgauskas were having their way.
The locker room could've been especially deflated at halftime because players know they're going to be missing some top players for a while. Johnson said before the game that Harris and Howard will be out most of the rest of the regular season, with Griffin and reserve Keith Van Horn likely missing several more games.
Then came 12 of the best minutes of Dallas' season. The Mavs outscored the Cavs 27-8, outrebounded them 17-8 and didn't have a turnover. James had six of Cleveland's points but took only four shots.
"I thought we were a little more physical with them," Johnson said. "We seemed like we were apologizing for being on the court in the first half."
The Cavaliers lost their third straight game and sixth straight in Dallas. Their previous game, against Miami, followed a similar script -- a blown second-half lead, then a near-comeback that fell short.
"Two games in a row we've played a playoff opponent in their building, they stepped it up and we didn't know how to respond," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "The crowd was alive and it was too much for us to handle."
Dallas' previous best defensive quarter was 10 points, done several times. ... James was 8-for-8 from the line after setting NBA season-highs for makes (24) and attempts (28) against the Heat. ... This was the fifth time this season the Mavs have won after
trailing by at least 17. ... The teams hadn't met all season, but they will again March 29 in Cleveland.
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