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Happy New Team!

Josh Howard is a big part of the Mavs' early-season success. Must be his magic headband.

Remember earlier in 2006 when a certain local basketball team started 0-4 and a certain local sports columnist cautioned fans not to panic? You're welcome. In case you've been too busy riding the Cowboys' rollercoaster to notice, the Dallas Mavericks have made their ugly start as distant a memory as losing to the Clippers and the November elections. Then: Oh-and-four. Since: 21-3.

The Mavs, who earlier reeled off a 12-game winning streak, have won seven straight entering tonight's clash with the equally searing Phoenix Suns and old friend Steve Nash. The Suns were 3-6 until a 15-game spurt pushed them alongside Dallas atop the Western Conference standings. The game, at 7 p.m. on TNT, certainly isn't crucial, but it is a good chance to try out the new Hi-Def from Santa, right? (To make us all jealous, Mavs owner Mark Cuban has a plasma of his own -- a 103-inch plasma. No, I can't imagine.) The Mavs' resurgence has been led, of course, by Dirk Nowitzki. But the reason Dallas will ultimately be even better than last season's team is because of Josh Howard and, check this out, Erick Dampier. Yes, that one.

While Dampier is blocking shots, snatching rebounds and actually catching passes in the low post, Howard is blossoming into a legit star. He was named last week's Western Conference Player of the Week, recently made 31 consecutive free throws, is all over the court defensively and is consistently taking -- and making -- 3-pointers. With Christmas just barely over, is it too late to say J-Ho-Ho-Ho? It is? Yeah, I thought so. --Richie Whitt

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