HOUSTON _ The Mavericks were going against a Houston team Friday night that traded away its starting point guard and lost its all-star shooting guard to season-ending knee surgery.
All it did, apparently, was make the Rockets better.
Rookie Aaron Brooks, the new starter at the point, threw in a 3-point dagger with 24.1 seconds left to lift the Rockets to a 93-86 victory at Toyota Center.
The Mavericks got supreme efforts from J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass. But they didn't have enough firepower to take down the Rockets in a rugged defensive battle down the stretch. The Mavericks forced several scoreless possessions and crept within 84-81 with under three minutes left.
But Ron Artest nailed a 15-foot jumper. Somehow, Josh Howard got loose for a 3-pointer, but Brooks countered with one of his own to make it 89-84.
After Barea's bucket with 1:41 left, both teams botched possessions until Brooks hit from downtown for a 92-86 lead.
All Dirk Nowitzki could do is slam the ball to the hardwood in disgust.
The Rockets were in a state of flux after trading away point guard Rafer Alston and finding out earlier in the week that McGrady would be lost for the rest of the season.
So the rookie Brooks got the keys to the offense. But as long Yao Ming is in the mix, the Rockets are dangerous.
They were particularly dangerous in the third quarter.
The Rockets went on a 24-4 spree that put them ahead 68-57. Going back to the second quarter, the ledger was 37-10 for the Rockets.
The Mavericks couldn't solve Houston's defense. And they had other problems, too. Erick Dampier was out much of the third quarter with four fouls. That left Ryan Hollins to try to stifle Yao Ming, which wasn't going to happen. Yao had eight points and five rebounds in the quarter.
He staked the Rockets to a 74-64 advantage going into the fourth quarter.
The Mavericks were struggling to score and when Shane Battier hit a 3-pointer with 7:25 left, the Rockets were up 81-73 and the Mavericks were hanging on for dear life.
But J.J. Barea made sure the Mavericks had a chance down the stretch. His layup was followed by a steal by Dirk Nowitzki, who was having an awful offensive game, but worked hard on the boards. He got the ball to Barea, who flipped a gorgeous bounce pass to Brandon Bass for a breakaway dunk that cut the Houston lead to 81-77.
The game featured the return to action of Jerry Stackhouse, who had been out for more than three months with a right foot injury.
Stackhouse played a little over eight m the first half and appeared to move well for a guy who has missed 45 games.
He finished with a couple of assists and a rebound, but missed all three of his shots.
Briefly: The Mavericks have been in touch with the agents for Mikki Moore and Joe Smith, two players who are available after getting waived by their teams to clear room for trade-deadline acquisitions. Numerous teams have inquired about picking up both players, who will likely have to wait until Boston finds out how serious Kevin Garnett's injury is ...