(AP) -- Facing a third consecutive defeat against Houston, the embattled Dallas Mavericks turned to Dirk Nowitzki, and the longtime superstar delivered a vintage performance.
It still wasn't enough to avoid a seemingly insurmountable deficit.
Down 3-0 in their first-round series with the Rockets, the Mavericks will look to Nowitzki again Sunday night, although his task of besting James Harden may seem near-impossible after an impressive effort from the MVP candidate in Game 3.
Nowitzki had a season-high 34 points Friday - his most in the postseason since scoring the same amount on May 5, 2012 - but he was outdone by Harden, who netted a career playoff-best 42 in Houston's 130-128 victory.
Monta Ellis, who also had a playoff best with 34 points, hit a runner with less than ten seconds left to pull Dallas within one, and Corey Brewer missed 1 of 2 free throws to give the Mavs a chance to tie it, but Ellis wasn't even close on a jumper at the buzzer.
Dallas is now left to face a fourth straight year without taking a postseason series since winning its first title in 2011. No NBA team has ever rallied from an 0-3 hole.
"This is a game that we needed to have," Nowitzki told the team's official website. "This ranks up there with the toughest playoff losses I've had in my long playoff career.
"This definitely is up there."
It was the type of effort Dallas needed in its first game without Rajon Rondo, who coach Rick Carlisle indicated would no longer be with the team following a listless effort in Game 2. The Mavs were also without Chandler Parsons after learning the small forward will miss the remainder of the postseason with a right knee injury that requires surgery.
Still, the duo of Harden and Dwight Howard proved too strong. Harden is averaging 30.0 points in this series, while Howard grabbed 26 rebounds Friday following a 28-point, 12-rebound performance in Game 2.
"The first two games, they kind of put two on the ball and kind of got me off the ball," Harden said. "This game, there were really no traps or anything like that. They were just giving me lanes and letting me be aggressive. So I just tried to read the play and make the best decision."
That different defensive approach against Harden in Game 3 - perhaps in part brought on by Rondo's absence - will likely be again modified Sunday after he saw a dramatic increase in shooting efficiency. Harden converted 15 of 24 field-goal attempts (62.5 percent) after managing to shoot just 32.1 percent in the first two games.
"(Harden) didn't shoot the ball great the first two games, so we knew at some point he would start to make shots," Devin Harris said. "We changed some things up and made some adjustments, but I'm pretty sure that we'll make further adjustments in Game 4."
The Mavericks must also account for Howard, whose 11 offensive rebounds Friday matched a career best. He has grabbed double-digit offensive boards only nine times in his career, and last had 11 on Feb. 10, 2005.
"Dwight was unreal," coach Kevin McHale said of his All-Star center, who had seven of his 13 points in the fourth quarter to help the Rockets hold on. "He got every rebound. He was just a beast."
Houston has won only one playoff series since reaching the 2007 Western Conference Finals. The Rockets were ousted last season by Portland and against Oklahoma City in 2013, both times in six games.
Dallas is 3-11 in the playoffs since winning its only championship and has dropped four consecutive postseason contests at home.
Nowitzki has scored 25.5 points per game in his playoff career, which ranks 11th-best all time, and is averaging 22.7 in this series. Ellis is averaging 24.7 in the series.
•Entering this postseason, the Rockets had led 3-0 in a best-of-seven series just once (the 1995 NBA Finals versus the Magic; won the series, 4-0). Dallas entered this postseason having trailed 3-0 in a best-of-seven series three times in franchise history, losing all three series and never winning more than one game in the series.
•The Rockets entered this postseason with a 9-2 series record when taking a 2-1 best-of-seven series lead (but have lost two of their last three such series). The Mavericks entered this postseason having won just three of 13 best-of-seven series after trailing 2-1 in the series, but did win their last such series (trailed the Heat, 2-1, in the 2011 NBA Finals before going on to win the next three games and the series/NBA Title).