The Dallas Mavericks have officially crawled out of the "terrible'' category in the NBA. Despite only averaging 13.9 points per game on 41-percent shooting, Dirk Nowitzki’s return to the lineup and him settling into his standard role -- and really, his mere presence -- has given the Mavs a legitimate on-court identity. With the boost from their superstar, Dallas has improved enough to the point where coming into Friday, they’d won five of their last six games and were only three games out of the final playoff spot while showing real signs of life for one of the few times this season.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is Spurs 113, Mavericks 107 marks yet another instance in which Dallas demonstrates the gap between itself and the cream of the NBA crop.
"They played at a higher level than we did,'' Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "They just kept pouring it on and we just couldn’t overcome that.”
The Mavs (18-25) need to start showing they can beat elite teams from time to time, especially when it really counts during the final few minutes of games. A win in Los Angeles against the Lakers on the first night of the season seemed to show what this team was made of at the time, but the luster has certainly worn off of that game after the Lakers have unraveled and shown their true colors. Despite hanging close to the end and into overtime with teams like Oklahoma City, Los Angeles (Clippers), and Miami, the Mavericks just haven’t been able to get over the hump of actually being able to finish in those games.
That was the case again Friday at the AAC against the Spurs, who have played the Mavs three times this year and have won all three by comfortable margins and are now 35-11.
"That team has our number,'' said Dallas' Shawn Marion of a San Antonio club that did its damage here even without ailing leaders Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich. "It is what it is.''
Any astute NBA follower over the last decade will tell you that handling business at the end of games was where Mavericks teams of the past used to thrive. Though some luck is always involved with positive results in those situations, countless use of the trusty Nowitzki/Jason Terry two-man game and the steady hand of Jason Kidd at the helm had a bit more to do with their success. Taking care of the ball, proper execution of the offense, and timely stops on defense were a staple of past Dallas Mavericks teams.
Now, two of those three players are gone and the new guard tandem of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison too inconsistently try to fill that void. Collison in particular faced a true challenge here working against All-Star Tony Parker. In two games against the Spurs coming into Friday, Collison was averaging 16.5 points on 68-percent shooting. And Parker against the Mavs? Averaging 19.5 points on 58-percent shooting.
One Mavs hope was that this one be a fair-and-balanced point-guard shootout. Instead, Parker was good for 23, including a late flourish of easy layups that crushed Dallas' fourth-quarter comeback attempt. The Spurs also got some relatively unexpected interior help from DeJuan Blair with 22 points. Gary Neal scored 18 and Tiago Splitter had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. In total, seven Spurs scored in double figures.
Dallas' answers? Carlisle replaced Chris Kaman with Elton Brand and got a game-high 13 rebounds with eight points and two blocked shots out of Brand. Vince Carter added 17 points and Nowitzki had 15. The backcourt grab bag resulted in Rodrigue Beaubois leading the Mavs off the bench with a season-high 19 points - four more than the little-used Frenchman scored in the entire month of December.
Collison scored 13 relatively inconsequential points.
And the issue of closing wasn't an issue at all. Crumbling in tight games in any of these games against the Spurs hasn’t been a problem for the Mavs because those two previous outcomes came with a 31.5-point average margin of loss. And it wasn't an issue Friday. After jumping out to a 26-point lead midway through the third quarter, there was no reason for San Antonio to take it out of cruise control for the rest of the night.
"They hit us first,'' Carter said. “But for us to be able to beat good teams you have to be ready to go right when you come out of the locker room.”
That doesn't happen quite often enough. So Dallas beating good teams doesn't happen quite often enough, either.