Just a game and a half behind the Lakers, playing on national television, with a chance to help themselves in the standings and help finally remove the unsightly hair protruding from their bodies, the Dallas Mavericks faltered.
With everyone watching, the Dallas Mavericks played almost exactly like the team so many loyal Mavs fans had been trying to convince the casual NBA fan that they weren't anymore. "No, they've been better lately, I promise!" such a conversation might have gone.
Dirk Nowitzki, who had looked as good as ever(or at least as good as the title season) the past week, providing unforgettable moments against the Bulls and a generally dominant performance against the Clippers as well, looked mortal once more tonight, meaning that in the short term, and least significantly, his now epic beard will remain unshaven.
What it means in the longterm, and most importantly, is that the Mavericks' climb to the playoffs just became a good deal steeper. Perhaps too steep.
Dallas now stands two and a half games behind both the Jazz and the Lakers, with two fewer losses. Both those teams now also hold the tiebreaker over the Mavs, by virtue of winning the head-to-head matchup this season.
In other words, this was a devastating loss. I will not omit the admission that I had thought this team finished a few times before this year, with more than one "nail in the coffin on the season" losses springing to memory. This time, however, there is very real and very daunting math that is stacking up against the Dallas Mavericks.
Dallas started tonight with Chris Kaman, he of the "DNP-bad" in recent weeks, at center instead of Brandan Wright or Elton Brand. Rick Carlisle was not coy in stating that he planned to play all three often and use as many fouls as needed from them against Dwight Howard. While Kaman provided some offense, leading all Mavs with 14(yes, 14) points, Dallas was overmatched inside, by Howard as well as Pau Gasol and combo-forward Earl Clark. All three pulled down double digit rebounds as the Lakers completely dominated the Mavs on the boards, to the tune of 57-37.
That rebound advantage, and especially the second chance point-differential, will stand out as the major disasters in both this game and maybe the season as a whole. A jump-shooting team without players who generate high percentage(i.e closer in) shots or free throws, Dallas has to maximize their possessions and try to limit the ones the other team gets, and when neither of those things happen, the score can get ugly.
For as close as Dallas has come to knocking on the playoff door, perhaps we should recognize that, in truth, the team was pretty fortunate to even be at this point. The Clipper and Bulls games both were wins that Dallas arguably did not deserve to get, and it is conceivable that the crazy late-game comebacks only distracted us from the glaring flaws on the roster and the reality that this team really has very little margin for error.
While it is true that Dallas was down only seven with four minutes left when Rick Carlisle implemented the "hack-a-Howard"(on a night, coincidentally, when Shaq was honored), the fact that Dallas made just one field goal from that point until the end of the game, while L.A made three, and grabbed three offensive rebounds, and hit a respectable percentage of their free throws, suggests the game was never quite that close and helped assure the final score represented that. The Lakers would finish the game with a predictably enormous advantage in FT attempts, at 33-12.
The Lakers flirted with blowing the game open at points prior to the fourth quarter, especially in the second, and a few well timed Dallas runs seemed to simply keep their head barely above water. With Brandan Wright getting key burn down the stretch trying to bang with Howard or Gasol, Dallas finally succumbed. Dirk Nowitzki was effectively bottled up(and banged up?) in the second half, and without him Dallas became entirely defensible in the half-court.
That's about all I feel up to saying right now, as a good night's sleep beckons and the sobering realization that our Mavs just might not make the postseason after all settles in.