Mavs edges Rockets in key Western Conference clash

The Mavericks improved to 40-38 with its fifth straight victory and took a two-game lead over Southwest Division rivals Houston (38-40) going into the last four games of the regular season.

Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews celebrates a 3-point shot against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Wednesday.   -  AP

J.J. Barea scored 27 points and Dirk Nowitzki delivered a key defensive stop on Wednesday as the Dallas Mavericks held off the Houston Rockets 88-86 in a crucial NBA Western Conference clash.

The Mavericks improved to 40-38 with its fifth straight victory and took a two-game lead over Southwest Division rivals Houston (38-40) going into the last four games of the regular season. It was a vital victory, with the Mavericks and Rockets locked in a three-team battle with the Utah Jazz (39-39) for the final two playoff berths in the West.

The Rockets have the most work to do, having lost six of its last nine games to fall to ninth place. Barea, already enjoying his first Western Conference player of the week honor — in the same week he celebrated the birth of a daughter — connected on 10 of 16 shots from the floor, including four of seven from three-point range. He also handed out eight assists.

Barea's recent strong play has helped the Mavs overcome Nowtizki's prolonged shooting slump. But longtime Mavs superstar Nowitzki came up big on the defensive end when it mattered, stripping James Harden as the Rockets' star drove to the basket in the final seconds with Dallas up by one point.

"It was fun," Barea said of the neck-and-neck duel."Dirk made a big play there at the end, but it was a team win, and a great defensive game."

Harden led Houston with 26 points, but he made just eight of 22 shots from the field and coughed up six turnovers.

Center Dwight Howard had 14 points and 16 rebounds for the Rockets, who return to Houston to complete a back-to-back set on Thursday against Phoenix.

Portland gets playoff ticket

In Portland, the Trail Blazers punched their post-season ticket with a 120-115 victory over the playoff-bound Oklahoma City Thunder. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27 points, CJ McCollum added 26 and Allen Crabbe came off the bench to chip in 16 points for the Trail Blazers, who improved to 43-37 and are in a virtual tie with Memphis for fifth place in the West.

The Thunder, already assured of the third seed in the West, opted to rest stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Pacers thumps short-handed Cavs

The Indiana Pacers, in the hunt with Detroit and Chicago for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, made the most of LeBron James's absence to beat the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers 123-109.

"(With James out), Cleveland played small, so we attacked the basket," said Indiana's Paul George, who shot 10-for-17 from the field and scored 29 points. "We had great ball movement, guys were looking for their shot and guys were making their shots."

Kyrie Irving scored 26 for the Cavaliers, which had a four-game winning streak snapped. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was unconcerned, believing it more important to rest James on the second night of back-to-back games to make sure his superstar is fit with the playoffs looming.

"We have the best player in the world on our team. He didn't play tonight, and I thought our guys came out and offensively I thought we did some great things against a great defensive team," Lue said.

The Pacers remained in seventh place in the East, one half-game ahead of the Detroit Pistons, which beat the Magic 108-104 in Orlando.

Reggie Jackson scored 24 points for Detroit, which improved to 42-37 and can clinch a playoff berth with one more victory or a defeat for the Chicago Bulls, which is 2 1/2 games behind the Pistons for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Jackson scored eight points in the final three minutes to help thwart a late Magic rally.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished with 18 points for the Pistons, which is eyeing its first playoff berth in seven seasons.