The Hawks were reeling. The Mavs were up 17. The low-hanging fruit of a win vs. the East was available for the harvesting ... and then Calderon got hurt, Vince got the final shot, and the Mavs suffered what Dirk termed a 'terrible' 88-87 loss at Atlanta on Friday. 'It,' Nowitzki said, 'is as bad a loss as it gets in this league.'
For the Dallas Mavericks and any other West playoff hopeful, games against the Eastern Conference represent low-hanging fruit. Consider:
*Going into Friday's visit to Atlanta, only two teams in the entire East had a winning record (while only two teams in all of the West had poor records).
*Meanwhile, in head-to-head meetings, West teams are beating East teams at an incredible rate of 72 percent.
*Last season, seven of the eight West teams that made the playoffs recorded 20 wins or more against the East.
So the easiest playoff path for the Mavs isn’t just beating the Spurs, Thunder and Rockets; it’s also beating teams like Atlanta, which came into this meeting with a .500 record having lost three straight.
Despite all of that -- and despite the Mavs forging a 17-point lead -- Dallas dipped to 10-7 with what Dirk Nowitzki termed a "terrible loss.''
"It is a terrible loss,” Dirk said. “We got to find a way to win this game ... It’s as bad a loss as it gets in this league.”
Instead, the Mavs spent the fourth quarter finding ways to lose it.
Jose Calderon left the game in the second half with a right ankle injury (and may not be available for tonight's home game against Minnesota). Without him, Dallas committed 12 second-half turnovers, shot just 3-of-19 in the fourth quarter, and designed a play for Vince Carter to shoot the failed game-winner from 22 feet in the final two seconds.
"We were looking to get Vince the ball and get him a good shot," Carlisle said of the final play.
The Mavs continue to position Carter as a "go-to guy'' in crunch time even though his Dallas history does not merit that. Calderon's absence obviously moves Carter up Rick's "food chain.'' And rookie point guards Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel were judged to be ineffective and weren't called upon down the stretch. Also, heck, maybe Monta Ellis' sore back is limiting his effectiveness.
Oh, and when backup center DeJuan Blair (18 rebounds and nine points) made two free throws at the 3:27 mark, it was the last time any Maverick scored in this game.
Nevertheless, feeding Carter when Ellis and Nowitzki are both on the floor -- even as those two combined for 1-of-9 shooting in the fourth --seems like a dubious decision.
For the large part of this season, the Mavs hadn't much been tested in crunch time and in clutch time. But suddenly, Dallas has five times in its last seven games gone down to the wire and played five-points-or-fewer games ... and now, after Al Horford knocked down a 20-foot jumper with 4.2 seconds left for a lead that stands up, the Mavs are a mediocre 3-2 in nail-biters.
This, of course, is a nail-biter that never should have been, a win almost earned, an advantage almost taken ... and then given back.
“We should have won this game,” Shawn Marion said. “There’s no excuse for it. It’s that simple.”