(The Sports Xchange) - J.J. Barea added another clutch performance to the best stretch of his career Wednesday night and the Dallas Mavericks secured a crucial 88-86 win over the Houston Rockets at American Airlines Center.
Dallas (40-38) has won five in a row and took a two-game lead over Southwest Division rival Houston (38-40) going into the last four games of the regular season. The Mavs and Rockets are locked in a three-team race with Utah (39-39) for the final two Western Conference playoff spots.
The victory also allowed Dallas to split the four-game season series with Houston. The Rockets would have taken the series and, more importantly, a playoff tiebreaker with a win.
Houston has lost six of its last nine games to fall into ninth in the West.
Barea scored a game-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including 4-for-7 on 3-pointers, two days after being named Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career.
As big as the diminutive Barea was on the offensive end, a defensive play by Dallas' longtime top gun helped preserve the Mavericks' hold on the game. Dirk Nowitzki, immersed in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, stripped James Harden driving to the basket with Dallas holding a one-point lead in the final seconds.
Harden scored 26 to lead the Rockets, but shot only 8-of-22 and had six turnovers. Rockets center Dwight Howard had 14 points and 16 rebounds.
Mavs shooting guard Wesley Matthews scored 16 and guard Devin Harris had 10 points off the bench. Nowitzki had seven points on 2-of-7 shooting and six rebounds. Barea had eight assists.
Dallas has held each of its last five opponents to less than 90 points.
Howard came to life in the third quarter by hitting the offensive boards and finishing strong. He gave Houston a 71-70 lead going into the fourth by tipping in an inbounds pass at the buzzer.
Barea scored 17 points in the first half, as the Mavericks took a 52-44 lead into the locker room. Matthews scored nine on three 3-pointers.
The Rockets were down 12 late in the second quarter before two contested jumpers by Harden pulled the visitors within eight points at the break. Harden had 10 points in the half and Michael Beasley scored nine on 4-5 shooting.
The Rockets return to Houston to complete a back-to-back Thursday night against Phoenix. Dallas has Memphis coming to town Friday.