LOS ANGELES (AP) -Jason Kidd's expert pass off the backboard went directly into the rising hands of Shawn Marion, who threw down a dunk punctuated by a scream, a quick hang on the rim and a half-twist on the landing.
Yep, the Dallas Mavericks are in perfect sync as they prepare to take on postseason opponents a whole lot tougher than the Los Angeles Clippers.
Dirk Nowitzki scored 25 points in 22 minutes, Marion added 21 points in his return from an injury and the Mavericks kept a firm grip on the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs with a 117-94 win over the Clippers on Monday night.
Although Dallas (54-27) has won four straight and seven of nine, they're still trying to hold off Denver (53-28) and Phoenix (52-28) in the race behind the Lakers. The pressure of the playoff chase is bringing out a higher level of play in the Mavs, who haven't let up at all against inferior opponents over the past week.
``I don't like being comfortable,' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. ``I like the results. We have done positive things. Wednesday is going to be a key to where we are, though.'
The Mavericks end the regular season at home against San Antonio on Wednesday, while the Nuggets conclude Tuesday night against the Suns, who finish Wednesday against Utah.
Kidd had 12 points and 12 assists for the Mavericks, who blew out the lifeless Clippers with a 37-point first quarter on the way to a 64-43 halftime lead. The Mavericks have won six straight over the Clippers, including a three-game sweep this season, and 15 of 18.
After Nowitzki scored 40 points at Portland and 39 more at Sacramento in the Mavs' last two games, he settled for 9-of-13 shooting - including three 3-pointers without a miss - and eight rebounds while playing only the first three quarters against the Clippers. He even extended his streak of consecutive free throws to 72, stretching his own team record.
Nowitzki senses a growing character in his team, praising the Mavs' businesslike run through Sacramento and Los Angeles after a tough win at Portland last week.
``Sometimes after an emotional win, you seem to let down, but we didn't,' Nowitzki said. ``We really came out firing in the first quarter, and we really need to come out firing on Wednesday. We were starting slow before, but now I think everybody is ready for a great playoff run. We've just got to go for it. We've got enough weapons to go deep.'
While Caron Butler sat out with a strained right hip, a move Carlisle described as ``precautionary,' Marion returned from a three-game absence due to a strained oblique muscle. He sparked the Southwest Division champions' offense with 9-of-12 shooting, including that breathtaking, two-handed dunk on Kidd's backboard alley-oop to close the first half.
``It isn't 100 percent, but it's getting better,' Marion said. ``The last games of the season are some of the hardest games to play. We want to focus on that home-court advantage and going into the playoffs strong.'
Chris Kaman had 17 points and seven rebounds as the Clippers played without starting guards Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. Craig Smith and Steve Novak scored 15 points apiece for the Clippers, who have lost eight of nine and 18 of 21 at the close of their 17th losing season in 18 years.
``Shawn Marion runs like a deer, and we were running like plow horses,' Clippers interim coach Kim Hughes said. ``We couldn't keep up with him the entire first half. He looked like a sprinter and we looked like a miler out there.'
While Dallas looks forward, Los Angeles mercifully finishes its season with a ``home' game against the Lakers, who pack Staples Center with thousands of their own fans for the twice-yearly games.
Dallas finished with the NBA's best road record at 27-14, a mark Cleveland and Boston can match with wins in their season finales. Hughes was impressed by the Mavs - and not so impressed by Wednesday's opponent.
``I truly think any team making the playoffs in the West can win it,' Hughes said. ``I think the Lakers have lost their karma a little bit, and they've lost their chemistry. Certainly, Dallas could win the West without a problem, and they could certainly lose in the first round as well.'
Rookie Rodrigue Beaubois scored nine points in the first nine minutes while Dallas jumped to an early 32-16 lead and didn't let up, eventually leading by 33 points before the reserve-filled fourth quarter.
NOTES: Davis sprained his right wrist in the Clippers' win over Golden State last Saturday, while Gordon missed his second straight game with a viral infection. ... Clippers F Travis Outlaw scored 13 points after missing four games with a strained right groin. ... Nowitzki hasn't missed a free throw since March 29. ... Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus attended the game with her family.
The Associated Press News Service
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