'Well, I don't think I've ever been to Wichita,' Rick Carlisle said before the Wednesday preseason game in Kansas. 'So I'm embracing this opportunity.' What is the result of that Mavs get out that embrace? A confidence boost in Crowder. Another injury to B-Wright. And a renewed respect for the excellence of OKC.
The Dallas Mavericks entered the game shorthanded, by unfortunate happenstance in the case of Dirk (and his recent knee surgery) and Kaman (leg), and by design in the cases of Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, who stayed home from the Wednesday trip to Wichita to rest up for the real grind that awaits the pair of basketball elders.
And then came an 88-76 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in which Brandan Wright picked up yet another nagger of an injury, an ankle sprain.
The challenge was already grand enough, the Mavs attempting to stick with an OKC team that ousted Dallas from the first round of the playoffs last year, an OKC team that repped the West in the NBA Finals last spring, an OKC team that is a favorite to win it all this season.
"This is one of the teams that's really up there," Carlisle said. "Not only do they have a high ability level in size and strength. But they've played together for many years, they're passing the ball better than they ever have, and those kinds of things make them one of the favorites out of the West."
At this moment, Dallas has no reason to even lift its eyebrows that high. The Mavs are less than a week away from the start of the regular season and with their 3-4 preseason record, have a lack of on-court cohesion due largely to the injuries, are trying to install some new sets into the offense but are showing some confusion there because its early in that process, and are suddenly heavily reliant on second-round rookie Jae Crowder.
The upsides of Crowder are many. They include the confidence earned by him from the coach, who doesn't habitually let kids climb up the depth chart this quickly.
"I like the way he plays and I like the way he played tonight,'' Carlisle said of Crowder. "He does a lot of good things on the court. He's going to be a guy that's going to be an important guy for us."
The rookie had a game-high 21 points, with nine rebounds, three assists and two steals in 34 minutes. The nine rebounds are key; the Mavs have been such a poor team on the boards in this preseason (OKC had the edge here, 51-40) that Jae may need to be coached away from the arc (as solid as he might be there) to instead be more of a consistent bull inside.
And then ... as you are trying to demand certain things of this player ... you stop yourself and remind yourself that the Dallas Mavericks suddenly seem terribly reliant on a guy who three months ago was considered a rather raw prospect.
"We just didn't have enough guys to get him out of the game," Carlisle said in explaining why Jae played 34 minutes.
Dallas was able to run with OKC, leading in fastbreak points, 23-14. And the Thunder had their weapons available, with Kevin Durant (18 points), James Harden (16 points) and Serge Ibaka (15 points) putting on a show for 15,000 Kansans.
But the Mavs shot under 40 percent for the third straight game (37.3 percent here), have yet another injury concern, and have just one more preseason tuneup, Friday night at the AAC against the Charlotte Bobcats.
"We’ve gotta build on (this),'' Carlisle said. "And we’ve got one game left, so we’ve got a lot to do before next Tuesday.”
Next Tuesday. That's when the Mavs face the Lakers in Los Angeles. Carlisle and the Mavs have definitely been to Los Angeles. They are going to have to "embrace this opportunity'' as best they can.