Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were back on the court, testing their tender ankles in the tightly contested Western Conference playoff chase. Elton Brand made his return, too, long after the Clippers had been relegated to the role of spoiler.
In the Eastern Conference, Gilbert Arenas' dramatic return to the Wizards' lineup was spoiled by a rookie's wild shot.
Nowitzki scored 18 points in his unexpected start Wednesday night after missing four games with a high ankle sprain and helped the Mavericks beat the Golden State Warriors 118-86. With the win, Dallas, seventh in the Western Conference, moved a full game ahead of idle Denver and two games ahead of Golden State. Only the top eight teams make the playoffs.
``There was already a sense of urgency. ... And then seeing Dirk out there, it was very inspiring,'' said Jason Terry, who matched a season high with 31 points. ``We were very surprised to see him (start). But once we saw him out there joking and laughing and smiling, I knew he'd be OK.''
While Nowitzki was obviously not at the top of his game (6-for-15 shooting) during his 27 minutes, he twisted and turned moving to the basket several times and didn't appear to have any significant problems with his ankle.
``I wasn't moving great out there. I was catching and shooting, or posting up and letting other guys do the work,'' he said.
In Los Angeles, Gasol had 10 points in his first game in nearly three weeks, Kobe Bryant scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter and the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-91 to remain 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans and a game back of San Antonio atop the West.
Gasol, playing for the first time since spraining his left ankle March 14 and admittedly not fully healed, played nearly 32 minutes - far more than expected. He added six rebounds and seven assists.
``It's a little sore, let's see how it feels tomorrow morning,'' Gasol said. ``But I'm excited. I'm happy I was able to go out there and really contribute. I feel satisfied, really happy to be out there. We got a nice win.''
In other NBA games, it was: Atlanta 127, Toronto 120, OT; Boston 92, Indiana 77; Cleveland 118, Charlotte 114; New Orleans 106, Miami 77; Memphis 130, New York 114; and Utah 117, Minnesota 100.
In Seattle, Brand scored 19 points in his first game this season, leading the Clippers past the SuperSonics 102-84. Only eight months ago, he had surgery to repair an injured left Achilles' tendon.
``To be able to go out there and compete and help us get a win ... that was great,'' Brand said.
His stat line looked like so many others Brand has posted over the past few years - 7-for-15 shooting, five rebounds, three assists, one block, and most importantly, 13 points in the fourth quarter.
The crowd in Washington was roused by Arenas' surprising return, that unfolded as if it was a Hollywood production. He kept himself under wraps all day, missing the shootaround, the pregame warmup and even the national anthem. Then Arenas waited until the 5:30 mark of the first quarter to emerge from the locker room in his customary No. 0 jersey.
He entered the game 9 seconds later and scored his last two points on free throws with 15 seconds left to give the Wizards a one-point lead. But Milwaukee wouldn't stick to the story, and Ramon Sessions hit a 19-foot jumper at the buzzer to give the Bucks a 110-109 victory.
``The script was planned out the right way,'' Wizards guard Roger Mason said. ``He hit the two free throws at the end of the game, and I kind of thought that was the end. A great story line: 'Arenas back.' But Sessions hit a crazy shot at the end.''
To make matters worse, Washington lost Antawn Jamison (shoulder) and DeShawn Stevenson (ankle) to injuries.
Celtics 92, Pacers 77
At Boston, Kevin Garnett had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and the Celtics tied the NBA record for the best single-season turnaround.
With the league's best record at 60-15, the Celtics have 36 more wins than last season when they finished 24-58, the NBA's second-worst mark. The only other team to improve by that much was the San Antonio Spurs in 1996-97, Tim Duncan's first season.
Cavaliers 118, Bobcats 114
At Charlotte, N.C., LeBron James scored 29 points before fouling out for only the third time in his career - with 3:56 left in the fourth - and wasn't on the floor when Cleveland snapped a six-game road skid.
Wally Szczerbiak, Devin Brown, who had 20 points, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas made key baskets down the stretch to secure the win.
Hornets 106, Heat 77
At Miami, Tyson Chandler was 10-for-10 from the floor, and his 20-point, 10-rebound effort helped New Orleans remain atop the Western Conference.
David West scored 22 points and Chris Paul added 14 points and 10 assists for the Hornets.
Grizzlies 130, Knicks 114
At Memphis, Tenn., Javaris Crittenton scored 23 points, Rudy Gay added 21, and the Grizzlies had their best offensive performance this season in a win over the Knicks, who hired Donnie Walsh as their new president earlier in the day.
Hawks 127, Raptors 120, OT
At Atlanta, Mike Bibby hit a tying 3-pointer in regulation, Josh Smith made two in overtime and the Hawks won their fifth straight.
The Hawks increased their lead for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot to four games over Indiana.
Jazz 117, Timberwolves 100
At Salt Lake City, Mehmet Okur made four 3-pointers and scored 22 points in a win for Utah.
Deron Williams had 19 points and 14 assists for his 49th double-double of the season as the Jazz won for the 24th time in 25 home games and improved to 34-4 at EnergySolutions Arena this season.

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