- James keys OT win as Heat force Game 7
- Allen's tying 3 keeps title hopes alive
- Duncan scores 30 but none in 4th and OT
- Bucks' Ellis opting out of contract
- Nuggets hire Pelicans' Connelly to be GM
By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN
(AP) -- The Dallas Mavericks are rounding into form after a slow start.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been at or near the top of the NBA since the season began.
Last season's Western Conference finalists meet for the third time since that series Wednesday night, with the Mavericks in search of a fourth straight victory.
A memorable conference finals between these teams saw Dallas (14-8) prevail in five games - all decided by single digits - as Dirk Nowitzki averaged 32.2 points with two 40-point efforts while Kevin Durant averaged 28.0.
The up-and-coming Thunder (16-4) were anointed one of the favorites to win the West this season, got off to a 5-0 start before a 100-87 loss at Dallas on Jan. 2 and have the NBA's best record. The Mavericks, meanwhile, began with three losses capped by a 104-102 defeat at Oklahoma City when Durant hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Dallas has had numerous players missing but is starting to get healthy, with Vince Carter averaging 18.0 points during this three-game win streak after missing five with a foot injury. Nowitzki has returned to play consecutive games - he's scored only 10 in each - after a planned four-game hiatus to strengthen his sore right knee and do conditioning work.
"We place a high standard on our play," coach Rick Carlisle told the Mavericks' official website. "And when you get off to an abysmal start like we did, it's painful. But we've climbed out of that and we've got to understand that just 'cause we're winning and playing well now, there's nothing guaranteed and we've gotta keep working at it."
Point guard Jason Kidd has missed the last two games with a right calf strain. Rodrigue Beaubois has stepped up since joining the starting lineup three games ago, averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 assists.
Beaubois barely saw any action in the first two meetings with the Thunder but could be called upon to slow down a surging Russell Westbrook, averaging 25.7 points over his last seven contests.
Westbrook's 31-point effort Monday was wasted in a 112-100 road loss to the Clippers. Oklahoma City allowed its most points and 56.3 percent shooting - a season high for an opponent.
"This is our first bad game in 20," coach Scott Brooks told the Thunder's official website. "That's the bottom line, we had a bad game. One of the things that this team does well that I'm proud of is they bounce back. You play 20 games, you have one bad game, I think any team in this league will live with that."
Nowitzki's two best scoring efforts this season came against the Thunder with 55 total points - two less then Durant has in the season series. Durant has averaged 36.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in his last two games.
The Thunder are looking for points outside of Durant and Westbrook, with James Harden averaging 15.5 against the Mavs. Harden, though, was held to seven Monday in his first start since Jan. 3 in place of an injured Thabo Sefolosha (sore right foot).
"We have to get more guys involved," Brooks said. "I have to do a better job with that, but it always comes on the defensive end for us."
Durant's 19.8 scoring average at Dallas in the regular season is his worst in a West building, although he averaged 29.0 there in three playoff games.
Updated January 31, 2012