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By MATT BECKER
(AP) -- Last month's meeting between the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Hornets marked the first starts of the season for Dirk Nowitzki and Eric Gordon.
Both teams are playing markedly better with them in the lineup, but while Nowitzki has helped get the Mavericks back into the playoff conversation, the Hornets' struggles before Gordon's return appear to be too much to overcome.
Nowitzki looks to help lead Dallas to a fifth win in six games Friday night in New Orleans.
Trying to extend their playoff streak to 13 years, the Mavericks (24-29) have little room for error in the final two months of the season. They sit in 11th place in the Western Conference, 4 1/2 games back of eighth-place Houston.
In its first game after the All-Star break Wednesday, Dallas handled woeful Orlando 111-96 to send the Magic to their 26th loss in 29 games.
"We had to have that one," said Elton Brand, who scored 17 points after averaging 5.3 in his previous eight games.
Shawn Marion also scored 17 and Nowitzki finished with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds. The Mavericks won for the fourth time in five games and improved to 10-8 with Nowitzki in the starting lineup. They're averaging 106.1 points since he made his first start, up from 98.8.
The Hornets (19-36) have a similar record with Gordon in the starting lineup, going 9-8.
While neither of those marks on their own are particularly striking, Dallas is 14-21 without Nowitzki starting and New Orleans 10-28 with Gordon out of the starting lineup.
After missing time recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, each made their starting debut Jan. 5 in Dallas. Nowitzki scored 20 while Gordon came up big late, completing a three-point play with 4.7 seconds left in overtime to lift the Hornets to a 99-96 victory.
Gordon, whose name was mentioned in trade rumors, sat out a 105-100 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday as the team prohibits him from playing on successive days. He scored 20 in 30 minutes of a 96-87 loss to Chicago the night before.
"I wish that (policy) was over, but we don't see it ending anytime soon," coach Monty Williams said. "For whatever reason, the doctors feel that's best for Eric. But he's healthy, so it's tough."
Although Gordon is healthy, he has been hit-or-miss in his last eight games, averaging 23.0 points and 50.0 percent shooting in four but 8.0 points and 29.4 percent in the other four.
Ryan Anderson, who leads New Orleans with 16.7 points a contest, has been mostly miss in his last two games. The NBA's 3-point leader with 160 has gone 1 of 8 from beyond the arc in those contests, totaling 17 points and shooting 22.7 percent overall.
The Hornets have won six of nine in New Orleans after starting the season 3-13 there. They're 9-1 in the last 10 against the Mavericks at home.
"They play hard and compete well," said guard O.J. Mayo, Dallas' leader at 17.8 points per game. "We're going to have to match their energy on their home court, and make sure we get that win."
Updated February 21, 2013