By KATE HEDLIN
(AP) -- After winning the NBA title last season, the Dallas Mavericks are struggling to stay in playoff position in the crowded Western Conference.
Their next opponent has a vested interest in those woes continuing.
The Mavericks will try to avoid their second three-game skid this month when they visit the Houston Rockets in the teams' first meeting this season.
Dallas entered the All-Star break vying for a top four seed in the West, but has gone 6-9 since returning.
The Mavericks had a four-game win streak snapped Wednesday by the Los Angeles Lakers before falling 104-87 at San Antonio on Friday. Dallas (27-22) is among six teams within one game of each other fighting for the final five playoff spots.
Poor defense has been to blame for the last two defeats. After allowing the Lakers to shoot 58.4 percent, the Spurs shot 48.9 and outscored the Mavericks 50-16 in the paint.
Dirk Nowitzki had one of his worst games of the season Friday, finishing with 16 points on 5-of-21 shooting. His two rebounds matched his lowest total of the season.
"I had a brutal night," he told the league's official website. "During the middle of the game, I just could not get the ball to the rim. A lot of my shots were short. I did not have enough to get the ball in tonight."
Dallas didn't have much depth inside behind Nowitzki, who didn't have a rebound through the first three quarters. Brendan Haywood sat out his fourth straight game with a sprained right knee while Lamar Odom did not play due to a coach's decision.
"It's something that I talked to Lamar about both yesterday and today," coach Rick Carlisle said. "That I was going to look at a different rotation tonight."
San Antonio outrebounded the Mavericks 54-34 after Los Angeles had a 46-29 advantage on the glass.
Those struggles inside could be an issue against Houston, which took advantage of its last opponent in the paint.
The Rockets (26-22) are trying to stay among the top eight spots in the West despite missing two starters from their backcourt.
Houston followed Tuesday's victory over the Lakers with another solid defensive effort in a 109-83 win over Golden State on Thursday.
It was the fourth time in five games the Rockets held an opponent under 100 points after giving up 108.3 over the previous eight.
"Every team has an identity and every team has strengths and weaknesses," coach Kevin McHale said. "We are able to cover up our weaknesses better now. I think we are more aware of exactly what we are doing and we are taking away, for the most part, the easy baskets continually."
The defensive improvement can be credited in part to the play inside. On Thursday, Chandler Parsons had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Samuel Dalembert added 15 points and 10 boards.
Dalembert has averaged 12.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in the last 11 games.
"Sammy's been really good," McHale said. "When you get Marcus Camby, Patrick (Patterson) and (Luis) Scola working on the defense, and those bigs are active like that, it gives us a huge different look."
The Rockets have lost four straight to the Mavericks and seven of nine, but the last three meetings have been decided by an average of 5.3 points.
Kyle Lowry (bacterial infection) and Kevin Martin (shoulder) both sat out Thursday and McHale said there is no timetable for their return.
Updated March 24, 2012