DALLAS — James Harden deferred to Dwight Howard and his role players when Houston swept two games at home to open a first-round series against Dallas.
The MVP candidate took over in the game that put the Rockets on the verge of Harden's first postseason series victory with Howard in their second season together — even interrupting his big man on a question about the best rebounding game of the center's playoff career.
Harden scored a playoff career-high 42 points, Howard had his postseason best with 26 rebounds and the Rockets beat the Mavericks 130-128 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in their first-round series.
"He was a beast," Harden said as Howard struggled for the right words about his big night on the boards. "He was a beast. Go ahead," he said, nodding toward his teammate.
By that time, Howard had the words.
"Tonight wasn't my night to score. I was OK with that," Howard said, although he did have seven of his 13 points to help Houston hold on in the fourth quarter. "But the one thing that I can always control is the paint and just try to get every rebound."
The high-scoring game was Dallas' first without effectively banished point guard Rajon Rondo, and Monta Ellis had a playoff career-high 34 points to match Dirk Nowitzki.
But Ellis missed a potential tying jumper just before the buzzer, leaving Dallas to face a fourth straight year without winning a postseason series since taking the franchise's first championship.
Game 4 is Sunday at Dallas. No team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA postseason series.
"It was an up-and-down game, shot-making and play-making all over the place," said Nowitzki, who scored 16 points in the fourth quarter as the Mavericks rallied from 11 down after leading by 13 in the second — and trailing by 11 in the opening quarter as well. "This ranks up there with the toughest playoffs losses I've had in my long playoff career."
Harden set his playoff career high and hit 40 points with a three-point play on a layup when Dallas was within a point.
After Harden fouled Nowitzki on a 3-point attempt and the big German hit all the free throws, Harden hit a jumper over Tyson Chandler. The ball rattled off the rim, hit the backboard and dropped back in for a 129-126 lead with 12.7 seconds remaining.
The Mavericks had one more chance, trailing by two with 6.7 seconds left, but Ellis wasn't close, missing to the right of the rim.
More concerned with protecting the rim after Howard and Josh Smith combined for five dunks off alley-oop passes in a key run in Game 2, the Mavericks let Harden have his shots. He found a rhythm and did most of his damage without his normal load of free throws, making 15 of 24 from the field.
"The first two games, they kind of put two on the ball and kind of got me off the ball," Harden said. "This game, there were really no traps or anything like that. They were just giving me lanes and letting me be aggressive. So I just tried to read the play and make the best decision."
When Dallas focused on slowing Harden in the second half, Corey Brewer hit two corner 3s and scored 13 of his 15 points. Harden had nine assists, including a nifty pass for an easy dunk by Smith, who had 18 points.
The Mavericks were playing without Rondo two days after coach Rick Carlisle said he had a previously undisclosed back injury while acknowledging that he didn't think Rondo would play for Dallas again. The announcement came after Carlisle benched Rondo for almost the entire second half of Game 2.
The Rockets had a season high in points in taking a 42-36 lead after the first quarter. The 258 combined points were the most in regulation in the playoffs since April 29, 1995, when Houston beat Utah 140-126. "It was a hell of a game if you like offense," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "If you like defense, maybe not so much."
The Dallas coach took issue with several calls but had his harshest words for the referees on a play early in the fourth quarter when Howard appeared to push Devin Harris out of bounds before grabbing a loose ball. He passed to Trevor Ariza for a 3-pointer and a 104-99 lead. "That stuff's got to stop," Carlisle said. "Howard is throwing people all over the place. And that can't happen in Game 4."
Rockets: Harden's previous career playoff high was 37 against Portland last year. Howard's previous best in rebounds was 24 in a first-round series against Philadelphia in 2009, when he led Orlando to the NBA Finals. He tied the Houston franchise record with the 26 rebounds.
Mavericks: PG Raymond Felton made his first playoff start since May 18, 2013, for the New York Knicks in a Game 6 loss to Indiana that sent the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals. ... Ellis' previous playoff high was 29 points twice.
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