Nowitzki needs just 34 minutes to score 33

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Mavericks strengthened their hold on
first place in the West, while the Timberwolves let another chance
for home-court advantage slip away.

Dirk Nowitzki scored 33 points in 34 minutes as Dallas beat
Minnesota 119-95 Sunday, sending the lethargic Timberwolves to
their third straight loss.

Steve Nash had a season-high 15 assists to go with 14 points in
just three quarters, and reserve Nick Van Exel contributed 19
points and nine assists.

Kevin Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds for the Wolves, who
fell behind for good in the first half and were down by 29 points
after three quarters.

Michael Finley sat out his sixth straight game with a strained
left hamstring, but the Mavericks didn't need him as they rebounded
from a 112-95 defeat to Portland two days ago.

While the Mavericks are trying to secure home-court advantage
throughout the postseason, Minnesota is desperately seeking it for
the first round -- something the Wolves have never had before. The
Wolves dropped a half-game behind fourth-place Portland.

"They knew the importance of the game, and I think we knew the
importance, but they got us back on our heels,'' Minnesota coach
Flip Saunders said. "It was like a heavyweight fight, where they
gave us one, two, three haymakers and we were groggy for the last
47 minutes.''

Dallas (55-18) owns the league's best record and has had a
playoff berth sewn up for some time, but the San Antonio Spurs
entered Sunday just two games back in the Midwest Division. If it
doesn't finish first, Dallas can do no better than the No. 3 seed
since the Midwest and Pacific Division winners get the top two

"We needed this in a big way,'' Van Exel said. "Every game is
a difference-maker. Our schedule is tougher than (the Spurs') -- we
can't afford to let it slip.''

It's tough to figure out how a team can lose track of a 7-footer
who can score from anywhere on the court, but the Timberwolves
always have trouble keeping a man on Nowitzki.

They tried Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and some zones, but
Nowitzki was 13-for-20 from the field. He finished with 136 points
in four games against Minnesota this year.

"We were just a little bit late in our rotations,'' Szczerbiak
said, "and any time you give them shots like that, they're going
to kill you.''

With an earlier-than-usual 12:30 p.m. Central start time to
accommodate ABC's national broadcast, the Wolves stayed in their
slumber after allowing offensively challenged Miami to shoot 62
percent from the field in a 111-84 loss to the Heat on Friday.

Rasho Nesterovic, in his second game back after missing five
with a sprained ankle, had nine of his 11 points in the first half
but was a step behind Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz on the other

Bradley, who totaled seven points in the teams' first three
meetings this year, had 10 of his 12 points in the first half.

LaFrentz had 11 of his 15 points in the second quarter as the
Mavericks went on a 10-0 run midway through the period to open a
62-47 halftime lead.

Dallas starts a three-game homestand Tuesday against New

"It feels good to win here after a long road trip, it feels
good to win three of four, it feels good to win without Mike,''
coach Don Nelson said. "So woo-hah!''

Game notes
Minnesota missed a chance to clinch a seventh straight
playoff berth. ... The Timberwolves placed point guard Rod
Strickland on the injured list before the game and activated Igor
Rakocevic. Strickland strained his groin Jan. 27, returned on March
18 and played only five minutes before re-injuring it. ... The
Mavericks put G/F Walt Williams on the injured list with a strained
left hamstring and activated C Evan Eschmeyer.

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