Dirk Nowitzki knows a vintage Vince Carter performance when he sees it.
So with a subtle nod, Nowitzki gave Carter the green light to take a crucial shot in the final seconds, and could not have been more pleased with the result.
Carter capped a 22-point performance with a 3-pointer that gave Dallas the lead with 6.5 seconds left, and the Mavericks held on for their third straight victory, 104-100 over the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night.
"I looked at him to see what he wanted," Carter said of Nowitzki, who was supposed to get the shot with the Mavericks trailing 100-99. "He gave me the nod to go ahead. Yes sir."
"I've never been afraid to take the big shot," said Carter, now in his 15th season. "I've never been afraid of the consequences, good or bad. I just throw all that stuff out of the window."
Nowitzki, who scored 25 points, said he and Carter noticed New Orleans making a defensive switch in the final few possessions, resulting in 7-foot forward Jason Smith covering Carter. When it happened just inside the final minute, Carter tried to drive on Smith, and found Mike James open in the left corner for a clutch 3 that made it a one-point game.
After New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez seemed to lose control of a shot that barely touched the front rim, Dallas started to set a play for Nowitzki and Carter wound up with the ball on the perimeter, again guarded by Smith.
"Since he just drove him the other time, I think Smith backed up a little bit and he just quick-shot him," Nowitzki said. "His 3 has been almost automatic the last couple weeks. He's been shooting it with confidence. He's been shooting it deep and that was a heck of a shot."
As the shot went down and New Orleans called for a timeout, Carter walked purposefully back to the Dallas bench without smiling, though he did exchange intense slaps of hands with Nowitzki and several other teammates.
"We're playing for a lot of marbles, of course, just trying to get ourselves back into the (playoff) race," said Carter, who hit five of his seven 3-point attempts, and also made some contested off-balance, driving floaters, including one as he fell over the baseline while being fouled. "It was a must-win game just like every game we're going to play from here on out. We're trying to approach every game with a playoff mentality. Just glad we were able to find a way."
Elton Brand added 13 points for Dallas (25-29), which is 4½ games out of the last Western Conference playoff spot with 28 games left. Darren Collison scored 11, hitting a pair of free throws with 3 seconds left for the final margin.
Eric Gordon scored 23 for the Hornets, who have lost three straight, but had only three points in the second half and lost the ball out of bounds while being closely guarded by O.J. Mayo with 5.8 seconds left, costing New Orleans a chance to set up a shot to tie or lead.
"Any time you lose a game you feel bad, but any time you lose a game that way because of your mistakes, it's worse," Hornets coach Monty Williams said. "(Dallas) hit some tough shots, but it was a lot of defensive breakdowns."
Anthony Davis added 10 points and 11 rebounds, but left the game in the third quarter with a sprained right knee.
Smith scored a season-high 22 points for New Orleans and Ryan Anderson had 20, including a 3 that gave the Hornets a 100-96 lead with 55.5 seconds left.
"Down the stretch tonight, you are up by four ... and you can't make plays," Williams said. "You can't blame anybody but yourself and that is basketball 101."
New Orleans led 69-63 on Smith's jumper about midway through the third quarter, but Dallas controlled the rest of the period while Gordon was on the bench and Davis was in the locker room with his knee injury.
Brand's 14-footer and Shawn Marion's alley-oop dunk ignited a 16-3 run, capped by Carter's 3, that put the Mavs up 79-72.
Davis eventually returned to the bench with more than eight minutes to go, and Hornets officials said he was available to return. But he did little more than pedal a stationary bike and watch the finish from the bench.
"I was prepared to play if they needed me. It's fine," Davis said, adding that he expected to play Sunday against Sacramento.
The Hornets managed to rally without him, thanks in large part to Smith, who scored six points during an 8-0 run that he started by converting a three-point play off an off-balance floater in the lane.
New Orleans led 97-94 after Smith's jumper, but Nowitzki stopped the surge with 15-footer that set up the thrilling finish.
NOTES: Marion and Mayo each scored 10 points. ... Dallas has scored 100-plus points in 16 of its last 18 games. ... The Mavs made eight of their 20 3-point attempts, while New Orleans went 5 of 17 from deep.