It has taken some time, but Dirk Nowitzki is finally starting to get close to his ability from before the injury, while also affecting the win column for the Dallas Mavericks, who forgot what it’s like to come out victorious in four consecutive games.

Nowitzki has been back for almost a month, but it’s been the last couple of weeks that marked his real return, playing 31.1 minutes in January and scoring at least 17 points in seven of his last nine games. He led the Mavericks in scoring in a 105-100 win against the Houston Rockets, scoring 19 points on 7-14 from the field and grabbing 8 rebounds.

I had some good looks. That 3 at the end of the third helped me get my rhythm. Sometimes all you need is to see the ball go through the hoop one time.

Having Nowitzki in the kind of form that makes defenses take special notice of him makes life so much easier for the rest of the Mavs. Six players finished in double figures. While O.J. Mayo continues his on-off shooting form, scoring 18 points on 3-14 shooting after making 72.7% of his attempts the previous night, the rest are looking better and better.

Shawn Marion scored 19 points (8-13) and grabbed 9 rebounds; Darren Collison scored 10 points, just like Jae Crowder. Elton Brand, who looks at his best when he’s playing alongside Nowitzki in the potential big lineups the Mavericks have, finished with 11 points and some big plays on defense.

When you hold James Harden to 5-23 from the field, good things happen. He and Jeremy Lin did combine for 39 points, but they made only 11 of their 36 field goal attempts, while Lin missed some crucial free throw opportunities. Suddenly, with four straight wins and Dirk Nowitzki looking better and better, talking about the playoffs, still four games away from the 8th spot (Rockets), doesn’t sound like such an outrageous thing.

Suddenly all the shouting Rick Carlisle is doing in practice seem to have an effect. All the moves Mark Cuban made during the summer don’t look so silly or worthy of criticism. These are only four wins, but they came against Houston and Minnesota among other teams, and ended a long stretch of losing, with and without Nowitzki.

His meaning is even bigger than sheer numbers. Nowitzki’s presence on the floor when he’s healthy means so much for the rest of the players, especially O.J. Mayo, who was having a good run before he once again started believing in himself a tad too much and destroyed the stat sheets and the rim with brick after brick coming out of his hands.

Nowitzki is struggling on defense and he still looks weak in his upper body compared to the past and compared to some of the guys he has to go up against. Defense was never his strong suit anyway, and never will be. Now that his legs are stronger and can carry him for more than 25 minutes a night, the Mavs have tow scorers who can create for themselves, and the greatest player in franchise history, old or not, looking ready to lead his team again.

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