Avery Johnson believes the Dallas Mavericks' reputation is so ingrained around the NBA that they will never get any credit for their defense, even when they clamp down on a decent Indiana team like they did Tuesday night.
If that's the case, then maybe they can gain some acclaim for debunking the myth that the Eastern Conference is closing the gap on the West. Judging from the way they pitchforked Chicago and Indiana on consecutive nights, it's not even close.
The Mavericks played commendable defense and got another heroic effort from Dirk Nowitzki as they buried Indiana, 84-75, at Conseco Fieldhouse, holding the Pacers nine points below their previous low scoring total of the season.
If Indiana is a threat in the East - and numerous preseason predictions had them in the NBA Finals - then the Mavericks should put in for a transfer.
"Record-wise, the West definitely looks stronger," Mavericks forward Keith Van Horn said. "The West has more good teams. I agree with that. But I do think the East has improved."
Perhaps. But the Mavericks, owners of a modest three-game winning streak, were the decisively better team for the second consecutive night. Nowitzki had a more efficient night than he had Monday against the Bulls, when he took a cue from Kobe Bryant and hoisted 28 shots for 35 points. Against the Pacers, he needed only 19 heaves to rack up 31 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks.
"He's one of the best players in the NBA," said Indiana's Stephen Jackson. "You have to take your hat off to him the way he carries his team."
Nowitzki said he's feeling the need to do so with Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry all on the sideline with injuries.
"That's 40 points (missing)," he said. "So there are some shots I have to take. I jacked up 28 shots (Monday). That's a lot of shots. But I have to be aggressive now. We don't really have a great scoring team out there. We only scored 80-something. But it was enough to win."
Mostly because the Mavericks were airtight defensively, holding Indiana to 34.3 percent shooting. The Pacers didn't help themselves by missing a dozen free throws.
The Mavericks never trailed. But Indiana got as close as four twice in the fourth quarter. Adrian Griffin's 18-footer with 3:18 to go made it 77-71. After Jermaine O'Neal missed, Nowitzki connected from 18 feet to ice the Pacers.
O'Neal, by the way, wore extremely short shorts by NBA standards, cut well above the knees in response to the fine he said he received from the league recently.
O'Neal's shorts were several inches longer in the second half. O'Neal had 25 points, but was only 7-of-17 from the field.
Johnson was proud of his team's defense, and justifiably so.
"We'll never get enough credit for our defense," he said. "It's all about perception. A team can score three points on us and in some circles, we're still a bad defensive team. But I told our team that's the challenge of trying to play it every night. They're trying like heck to do it."
James trumps Kings
At Sacramento, California, LeBron James scored 11 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, adding six rebounds and six assists as he carried Cleveland through the tense final minutes of a 102-97 victory over Sacramento.
Larry Hughes scored 24 points for the Cavaliers, who snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Kings with their first victory in seven trips to Arco Arena since March 19, 1998.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim scored 25 points for the Kings, who lost their fourth straight when they couldn't recover from a dismal first half. Sacramento has lost three straight home games for the first time since April 7-11, 2000.
Bonzi Wells had 19 points, 12
In other NBA action: Washington 119, Toronto 111 (OT); LA Lakers 111, Milwaukee 92; Memphis 89, New Orleans 73; Phoenix 130, Portland 85; Houston 91, Boston 73; Denver 125, Atlanta 116; New York 104, Seattle 101.