When the Dallas Mavericks last saw the court, it was Wednesday in L.A. and they'd given up 129 points to the Clippers.
When they last saw the Suns, it was Dec. 21 in Phoenix and they'd given up 123 points to a hot young team.
On Friday the Mavs recorded a 110-107 that is key in the small-picture sense because the defensive bleeding was stopped, and key in the big-picture sense because the Mavs and Suns are jousting for second-tier playoff position.
And bigger than all of it? The play of pint-sized point guard Shane Larkin, the Mavericks’ first-round pick, called upon to be a finisher for a team that this year too often does it so poorly.
"We showed a lot of character,'' coach Rick Carlisle said. "What happened (Wednesday) night is a situation where you have to respond the right way and it shows the kind of character that you have and our guys showed it tonight.''
Topping that list (and maybe your vote for who deserves "The Dirkie'') is Larkin and his 18-point, five-assist "coming-out party.'' At almost all times this year he's been buried behind starter Jose Calderon and often he's behind fellow rookie point Gal Mekel. But Mekel had knee surgery on Friday, and during the game Calderon came up lame with a bruised right knee.
So with likely top-reserve point guard Devin Harris watching from the bench as he prepares for his season debut maybe as soon as tonight at the AAC against Portland (and barking constant helpful instruction to the kid), the game was handed to Larkin.
Eighteen points? That's how many he scored in his previous six games combined!
“I just had the mentality to go in and play my game when I got in the game,” said the 5-11, 175-pound Larkin. “My teammates had confidence in me. The coach had confidence in me to keep me in there and give me the ball late in the game.”
In truth, Carlisle had little choice. But Larkin -- who joins Mashburn, Kidd and Nowitzki as the only 21-year-olds in franchise history to record a game of at least 18 points and five assists -- was always Carlisle's pick for this job.
“This is why we drafted him,” said Carlisle, who in fact was instrumental in pinpointing Larkin last June. “We felt he could have this kind of impact.”
Larkin needed surgery to repair a broken ankle last summer; that's slowed his development. But the son of baseball legend Barry Larkin absolutely matched the billing given him by Mavs officials who believe he will at the very least be a J.J. Barea-type of player.
Here, Larkin was good for 27 minutes, was 6-of-8 from the floor, showed some guts in making 2-of-3 from the arc and showed some cool by hitting four clutch free throws in the final 79 seconds.
“This team has a lot of veterans,” Larkin said. “You have to prove yourself to them every single day as a rookie. I’ve just been putting a lot of hard work in. The coaches stay on me. They don’t take it easy on me. All the hard work and all the things they taught me paid off today.”
Consider Dirk convinced.
"He was awesome,'' Nowitzki said. "He was phenomenal. I think this was his kind of game, an up-and-down game, free-flowing. ... He made some big shots, he knocked down big free throws and we needed him. ... He competed, he picked up full-court, he pushed the pace for us when we needed it, so he was very phenomenal.''
The Mavs (at 24-17 owning an exact flip-flopped record from the midpoint of last season) endured some late-game chaos, including Sam Dalembert's mindless foul of a three-point shooter (allowing a four-point play) and Vince Carter's bizarre inbounding of the ball to himself.
But this win prevents the orange-T-shirt-clad Suns (22-17) from definitively owning a playoff tiebreaker (Phoenix won that earlier meeting and the clubs only meet once more). And in Larkin, it gives Dallas confidence that there is another weapon available to help the Mavs endure their chaos.
"It got hairy at the end, but it gets hairy at the end,'' said Carlisle, with words that belie how truly unacceptable -- even after a good road win that gives you a good midseason record -- all this hair truly is.