The Dallas Mavericks officially began the second half of their season (ok, so they had already completed 63.4 percent of their season prior to the All-Star break) Wednesday night with a small gift from the schedule-makers. After a full week off, the Mavs welcomed the team with the second worst record in the NBA, and winners of just three of their previous 28 games: the Orlando Magic.
GAME STORY: With 30 games to play, the Mavs started the night 4.5 games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth seed in the Western Conference (only three back in the loss column), a precarious position that could turn a loss to this Magic team into a potential season-ender, and to extinguish any slim playoff hopes fighting to hang on.
Thanks to 42 first-quarter points, the most for Dallas in any quarter this season, and a 17-0 surge in the fourth on the backs of Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Shawn Marion, the Mavs pulled away for a 111-96 victory.
Unfortunately, they would gain no ground on the Rockets in the standings after a huge game from James Harden (a career-high 46 points on 14-of-19 field goals) keying a late win over the Thunder.
Prior to the game, the talk was focused on the Mavs inability to start off games well, as Rick Carlisle noted the Mavs are “the worst team in the league in the first six minutes of the game.”
For proof, we turn to the numbers from Mark Followill: Dallas entered the night at minus-110 in the first six minutes of first quarters this season … at a distant second was Portland at minus-80.
The Mavs would respond, jumping to a 9-2 lead on their way to that season-high, for any quarter this season, of 42, and a 12-point lead, despite the fact that the Magic hit 60-percent of their shots for the quarter. Each Dallas starter had at least four points, and the elusive fast start was captured.
Over the next two quarters, what was gained from the hot start was given away. A lead that had widened to 16 was flipped into a six-point deficit in the third before OJ Mayo set the world aflame.
It began innocuously enough, as Jameer Nelson outpaced Mayo’s lackadaisical effort to chase down a loose ball created by a great hustle play from Shawn Marion … then, in an instant, Mayo, and the Mavs, seemed to remember where they were … and the urgency of the moment.
Mayo (13 points, 5-of-11 field goals, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, 0 turnovers) raced to the rim, erased a JJ Redick layup attempt, chased down the ball, curled up the court and poured a sky-high alley-oop pass in Vince Carter’s general direction. Carter soared above the rim and slammed the ball home with both hands.
The crowd exploded … the momentum shifted.
A pair of Carter three’s and two free throws from Collison later, the Mavs had erased the deficit with a 10-3 run to end the third quarter up one, sparked by Mayo’s block and subsequent alley-oop. They would not look back in the fourth period.
“It’s as good a hustle sequence as we’ve had all year,'' coach Rick Carlisle said. "I thought the timing of it couldn’t have been more key in the game. We were down six at the time and it was going to be eight. Instead, we go down and get a lob dunk, get another stop and then hit a three. That’s a huge swing; that’s a seven-point swing within seconds. If that doesn’t happen, we may be whistling a different tune right now.''
Elton Brand led the way early, scoring nine of his 17 points in the first. Shawn Marion continued his strong stretch of play with 17 points and eight rebounds. Wright scored all of his eight points in the quarter. Carter finished with 14 points and a season-high eight assists (tying his high as a member of the Mavs). Mike James scored a season-high 12 points and good all of the meaningful backup point guard minutes. And, Darren Collison was again solid, even if his shot was off (3-of-10 shooting), with nine points, nine assists, two steals and three turnovers.
Contributions from so many hid an off-shooting night from Dirk Nowitzki, 4-of-13 for 12 points, though he did tie a season high with nine rebounds.
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QUOTEBOARD: The talk from the locker room:
“Thirty-two assists is a great number. The positives were the assists numbers were great, our start to the game was better. ... You’ve got to get traction and get stops to be the kind of team we want to be. In the fourth quarter we showed we can do it. Now we’ve got to bring it to the whole game and be able to sustain it. That’s a challenge we’re going to keep embracing.” - Rick Carlisle
MAVSELLANEOUS: A few odds and ends:
*With so much focus on the first six minutes coming into the game, here is how Dallas fared in the first six minutes against Orlando:
The Mavs led 20-14, hit 58.3 percent of their shots and got to the free-throw line five times, hitting all five, and had a 7-0 advantage on fastbreak points.
The downside would be that the Magic also hit 60 percent of their field goals in that span.
*Dallas is 11-6 in the last 17 games. During that span they are outscoring opponents by an average of 6.3 points and are putting up 108.1 points per game.
During this stretch, they are also only averaging 12.1 turnovers (compared to 14.2 per game entering Wednesday night), and getting out-rebounded by 0.8 per game (compared to -3.6 for the season).
PLAYER-BY-PLAYER: A few players stats during this 17-games stretch:
Mayo: 16.8 points, 47.9 FG%, 38.1 3PT%, 5.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 2.4 turnovers
Dirk: 16.4 points, 41.5 FG%, 34.9 3PT%, 3.0 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 0.8 turnovers
Carter: 15.4 points, 45.8 FG%, 48.1 3PT%, 2.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.1 turnovers … and the team’s best plus/minus of plus-11.9 per game (next best is Mayo at plus-3.5)
Marion: 14.8 points, 55.0 FG%, 40.0 3PT% (you read that right), 8.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 turnovers
Collison: 12.8 points, 49 FG%, 47.2 3PT%, 6.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 2.1 turnovers
Brand: 8.7 points, 47.8 FG%, 7.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks
THE FINAL WORD: As wrong as it may feel to say about a game against a team with the second-worst record in the NBA in the first appearance after the All-Star break; this was a must win for the Mavs.
Simply to reach 43 wins, Dallas must now go 19-10 to close the season … and that likely only puts you just outside the playoffs if Houston, Los Angeles or Portland can muster anything resembling a winning streak. By comparison, Houston needs only go 14-12 to finish with 44 wins.
As fragile as any playoff hopes may be, there rests enough air to feed the flicker for a bit longer. Suffocation is a beast slinking at the edge of sight, waiting for a misstep, set to leap upon any mistake … looking to feast … but not today.
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