DALLAS — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade one night. Dirk Nowitzki and the defending NBA champions the next.
Doesn't seem like a fair back-to-back pairing for the Utah Jazz, but that's what the unmerciful NBA schedule-maker gave 'em.
To their credit, the Jazz only lost one of the monster matchups.
Also to their credit, the Jazz turned a monster 40-point outing by Nowitzki — in just 29 minutes — and what looked like a mismatch Saturday night into a moral-victoryesque 102-96 loss to the Mavericks.
The Jazz — sparked by the energetic and relentless play of their second unit — made a furious rally in a 41-point fourth quarter. After trailing by 23 with 10 minutes left, Utah pulled within five points in the final two minutes to make the sellout crowd at American Airlines Center get a tad nervous.
Despite some shoddy ball handling against a feisty Jazz defense, the Mavs managed to hold on to snap their four-game losing streak.
Nevertheless, the Jazz said they took something positive out of the Nowitzki showcase that could help them as they continue their five-game road trip Monday in Cleveland.
"We came at them and got aggressive and gave us a chance to get back in the ballgame," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We made a couple of turnovers down the stretch, but the effort that we had in that fourth quarter is what we're going to need to get to more consistently, especially on the road, to have a chance to win road ballgames."
Jazz center Al Jefferson (11 points, 4-for-12 shooting) struggled to find his offensive game almost to the level that Nowitzki excelled at his. Even with Nowitzki doing his thing — 14-for-21 shooting, including an off-balanced, one-legged, 3-point bank shot — Big Al was pleased that the Jazz fought back in the fourth.
"We still put ourselves in a position to win the game, and that's all you can ask for," Jefferson said. Without pausing, he then added one more thing Utah can actually demand from itself. "We've just got to play like that the whole 48 minutes, not 30."
Because the Jazz didn't do that while scoring just 55 points through the first three quarters, they fell to 17-19, dropped to 3-13 outside of the Beehive State and lost to Dallas for the seventh straight time.
Nowitzki had quite a bit to do with that.
"He didn't miss," Jefferson said.
Tell Millsap about it. His team-leading 24 points seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to Nowitzki's season-high outing, which, by the way, was his first 40-point game in almost a year and a half.
"Nothing more I can do but foul him and send him to the line," said Millsap, who drew Nowitzki's number most of the night. "He hit some tough shots."
The 7-foot German quickly turned a six-point contest into a 59-47 lead with consecutive 3-point shots — one of which was the ridiculously difficult banker, the other over Millsap's outstretched arms.
The Mavs (22-16) used that momentum to build an 80-57 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"I had a good rhythm tonight," Nowitzki said. "I had not been really shooting the ball well, especially from around 15 to 16 feet, which is usually my comfort zone. I just wanted to be aggressive and my teammates kept feeding me, and that was great."
Jason Terry added 22 points for Dallas, while Jazz-killer Lamar Odom returned from a 10-day break and a brief, non-playing D-League stint to contribute nine points and five boards to the Mavs' cause.
What stood out to former Dallas standout Josh Howard, an All-Star here in 2007, wasn't the way the Jazz played to get into a 23-point hole nor how they dug out of it.
It was his former teammate's MVP-like night.
"I actually remember Dirk making a lot of shots," Howard said. "At the end of the day, he's a high-caliber player. He made some tough shots. Overall, he caused double-teams that made other guys knock down shots. … I think we played as hard as we could, especially coming off a back-to-back."
The backups were the ones who got most of the locker room praise from the Jazz.
Earl Watson showed his usual feistiness and leadership at the point, wings Alec Burks (eight points) and C.J. Miles (13 points) had strong moments, and bigs Derrick Favors (14 points) and Enes Kanter (four rebounds) helped force the turnaround action.
Nowitzki had to be brought off the bench to save the day (of course) because of their play.
Millsap's three-point play with 1:41 cut the Mavs' lead to 93-88, but Terry gave Dallas some breathing room with a layup after he and Miles exchanged turnovers.
"Our bench came in and gave us a big lift," Jefferson said.
"Our bench did great," Millsap added, "and we fought down to the end."
Now the Jazz just have to figure out how to do that again in a road win — something they haven't done since Feb. 12 in Memphis.