DALLAS (AP) - Dirk Nowitzki heard plenty of criticism after he struggled in the first round of the playoffs last season.
When the Mavericks needed a big game Friday to avoid a 3-0 deficit, Nowitzki responded with the type of performance he had in the 2006 postseason.
The 2007 MVP scored 32 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and handed out six assists in Dallas' 97-87 victory over New Orleans. The Mavericks cut the Hornets' series lead to 2-1.
Hornets point guard and MVP candidate Chris Paul stole the show the first two games. But Nowitzki set the tone in Game 3, and the Mavericks have an opportunity to even the series in Game 4 on Sunday night.
``There's been a lot of pressure on him,'' Dallas guard Jason Terry said. ``A lot of people are talking about what happened last year. We just need him to be Dirk and play with that emotion, that fire that you saw (Friday).''
Nowitzki scored 37 points in Game 7 to eliminate San Antonio in the 2006 playoffs, then dropped in a franchise-record 50 points a couple weeks later against Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. Those stellar outings were all but forgotten after he faded in Golden State's upset of Dallas a year ago.
The lasting image of that series was Nowitzki scoring only eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in Game 6 as the Warriors eliminated the top-seeded Mavericks.
Nowitzki has tried to put those bad memories to rest by averaging 30 points and 11 rebounds against New Orleans.
``As a team we weren't as sharp as what we wanted to be,'' said Nowitzki, who is still not completely healthy after suffering knee and ankle injuries in late March. ``We didn't have good rhythm going in. This year was different. I had good rhythm the last few weeks after I got hurt. I was more into the attack mode.''
Nowitzki showed off that aggressive attitude early, scoring nine points in the first quarter to help Dallas jump out to a double-digit lead. He added 10 points in the fourth quarter to help the Mavericks pull away.
The big German showed his tenacious side in the third quarter after he seemed to get his neck twisted while being fouled. Nowitzki responded by scoring Dallas' next six points.
``He's one of those guys who plays better when the lights come on,'' New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. ``We've got to do a little bit better job on him. The biggest thing is not allowing him to get to the free throw line 12 or 13 times per game.''
Along with slowing Nowitzki down, the Hornets must find a way to get Paul back on track.
Paul, who amassed 67 points and 27 assists in New Orleans' two wins, was kept under wraps Friday. He was held to 16 points on 4-of-18 shooting.
New Orleans forward David West averaged 25 points the first two games of the series, but he was just 6-of-20 shots for 14 points.
Paul didn't seem fazed by New Orleans' offensive troubles Friday.
``All day long I'm going to keep feeding (West),'' Paul said. ``I'm going to keep being aggressive myself. We're going to keep playing our game. There's no reason for us to go to the drawing board and scratch everything we've done. We're not going to change too much of what we do.''
The key adjustment the Mavericks made in Game 3 was inserting Terry into the starting lineup. Terry answered the call with 22 points while keeping the nimble Paul from getting into the same groove he found in the first two games of the series.
``(Terry) is awfully quick and he's fast,'' Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. ``You need to have those assets to be able to compete against their quick backcourt. It's just one game. We think what we're doing now gives us the best chance to be competitive in this series.''
New Orleans hasn't beaten the Mavericks in Dallas since January 1998. The Hornets were located in Charlotte at the time and Mavericks were playing a few blocks down the road in Reunion Arena.
A Mavericks win Sunday guarantees the series will return to Dallas for one more game.
``I never think about where we're playing,'' Paul said. ``I haven't thought about how many games we've lost here. It's always just a game to me. I could care less how many times we've lost here.''

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