For the third time, the Dallas Mavericks had a chance to even their season record and shave the beards they had pledged to grow.
For the third time, the Dallas Mavericks would come up short.
Of course, at this point, being emotionally invested in an achievement like a .500 record is somewhere between mildly strange and just straight-up pitiful. So, really, I guess the story should be that this team lost, again, against an ostensibly inferior opponent, and that whatever pride this team seemed to be playing with a few weeks ago was not evident tonight.
The Suns entered tonight's contest with the worst record in the Western Conference, having lost 10 in a row, and 14 out of 15. They had not recorded a road win since February.
Phoenix wasted no time looking like the better, fresher, hungrier team. They jumped out to a 28-14 lead, with Dallas scoring one field goal over a six minute stretch. The offensive woes were concerning, with several shots from Dirk and Wright seemingly hitting every part of the rim without going down, but the bigger issue was the defense, which allowed Goran Dragic to drive at will and get whatever shot he wanted on the floor.
With a minute left in the first, Vince Carter would fuel a mini-run, with a putback dunk to get the crowd engaged. The lead would be cut in half at 28-21 at the first buzzer. Beginning the second, Carter would keep the Dallas momentum going, hitting a three, and Dallas would finally get hot shooting the ball, briefly taking the lead on a Dirk jumper and some back-and-forth keeping the margin within one possession until the halfway point of the second quarter.
Then, Phoenix would return most of their starters to the floor, and much like the first quarter, they would run around, above, and through the Maverick defense, building back a double-digit advantage largely on the efforts of Wesley Johnson, who looked less like the bust he was in previously in Minnesota and a lot more like the sweet-shooting Syracuse swingman(pardon my alliteration) who earned a top five selection a few years ago. Johnson would score 13 points in a little over five minutes, hitting very nearly everything he threw at the rim, and Phoenix would leave the stunned/apathetic home team behind as he and his teammates headed to the locker room back up by 10, at 61-51.
In the third, Dallas would fight their way back to a tie one more time, with a 12-2 run to start the period punctuated by a Shawn Marion basket to even things at 63-63. One might have thought that this third run would prove to be the charm, and that the Mavericks would finally take control. But, it was the visiting Suns who had all the answers, responding to that run with a 12-0 stretch of their own, and this would essentially prove to be the knockout, even if it technically took another 15 minutes of game action for the referee to count to "10".
Tonight's loss probably didn't end the Mavericks postseason hopes. Those ended some time ago. But, for a squad with so many free agents and players theoretically making their case to stick around(or at least earn a nice paycheck somewhere else), it was pretty damning.
Let's start with the good: Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, two of the few with what might be considered "job security", looked like about the only guys who cared. Marion had a game-high 22 points, along with 9 rebounds, and 3 steals. Vince Carter recorded 18 points on 6-12 shooting. Dirk Nowitzki had a decent if inconsistent game, and although his shot was curiously off in the early going, he still managed to score 21 points on 18 shots, registering 8 boards and 3 dimes.
The rest...yuck. Chris Kaman, fresh off arguably his best game of the year, went 1-6 for 2 points. Darren Collison also went 1-6. O.J. Mayo shot just 2-10 and continued his disappearing act in the month of April, with just 6 points and 4 turnovers. His last 15 games, with a postseason birth on the line, Mayo is averaging 9.3 points a contest.
Mike James shot the ball decently enough, but was absolutely embarrassed by Goran Dragic on defense. Brandan Wright did block 5 shots, but he was not able to be quite the X factor you'd have liked against a small Suns frontcourt(without Marcin Gortat), as he and Dirk allowed backbreaking second chance points at key moments in the second half. Though Jermaine O'Neal went 2-12 from the field, he was not exactly slowed down by Wright, and missed a hilarious number of layups and easy shots at the rim. In related news, Jermaine O'Neal needs to retire.
Rick Carlisle was clearly looking for any kind of spark, going to the deepest regions of his bench. Bernard James got a early look, as did Anthony Morrow, and 10-day-contract signee Josh Akognon made his NBA debut, and even hit his first and only shot. Unfortunately, he was a little overly aggressive defending Goran Dragic full-court, and picked up two quick fouls, banishing him to the bench.
How do you not overreact to this game? It's the sort of sad outcome that makes me feel like everyone but Dirk, Carter, Marion and the rooks should be jettisoned and the roster rebuilt. At the very least, major, major changes need to occur, and perhaps some changes need to happen in the front office. By that I'm not suggesting firings, necessarily, but a reevaluation of the approach to building a winning organization, top to bottom. I'm sure we'll have a long offseason to talk about what all those changes might be.
For more, check out Bright Side of the Sun.