There was something in the Dallas Mavericks against the Utah Jazz on Monday night.
There wasn't consistent execution. There weren't many clean box outs. There weren't a good amount of smart decision making. There weren't a lot of crisp defensive rotations or reliable shot making.
But there was fight.
It doesn't mean much. It's a loss in the standings, creeping Dallas ever so precariously closer to the dubious distinction of winning the title one year, then failing to make the playoffs the next. It means that the old Maverick legs are tremendously older. Dirk Nowitkzi and Jason Terry each played over 50 minutes. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter each over 40.
But that can take a backseat to the battle the Mavericks were in. Fourth game in five nights, it would have been all too easy for Dallas to no-show in a tough place to play like Salt Lake City against a desperate Jazz team fighting for the Western Conference's eighth seed. The last time the Mavericks played four in five nights, they were absolutely embarrassed by Golden State and Sacramento in the final two games. But not tonight.
Tonight there was fight.
Tonight there was Dirk Nowitkzi, looking like the 2011 playoff Dirk, crushing big shot after big shot. The Jazz broadcast team can be downright awful at times, but they summed it up best on Dirk's game-tying three in the first overtime: it looked like Dirk was on the playground, casual, calm and collected. The Mavericks season has been as frustratingly inconsistent as Dirk's, but tonight, Dirk left little doubts.
He was by himself at times, trying to stabilize a tired offense on his own. I don't blame him for rushing up his final three-pointer with plenty of time on the clock to pass out to get a better shot. If the ship was sinking, the captain was going down with the ship.
I have a hard time completely gutting the Mavericks on their obvious weakness in this game: the pitiful rebounding, which cost the Mavericks opportunities to put the Jazz away all night. Or the staggeringly weak pick and roll defense, in which Utah exploited Dallas eagerness to collapse in the paint with a steady stream of open jumpers.
Or ripping Rick Carlisle for his overtime rotations. It was absolutely the right call to leave Vince Carter in to close out the fourth quarter. The Jazz don't employ any superstar talent on the wings to defend and Marion was giving the Mavericks nothing offensively or on the glass. Carter provided a critical outlet to Dirk's double teams and nailed two huge threes in the fourth quarter. In the overtime periods, I was surprised that neither Marion or Haywood subbed in for situational late-game defensive possessions, but with the duo combining for four points, four rebounds, 2-of-8 field goal shooting and a whopping minus 15 in 45 minutes of play, it's really splitting hairs. Neither of those two starters came to play, when the Mavericks desperately needed their defense and board work. (Al Jefferson is grinning mightily.)
I have a hard time getting worked up about a putrid offense that had a hard time being creative or drumming up good looks in half court sets until sporadic moments in the fourth quarter and the three overtimes, because of the tired legs.
I have a hard time completely trashing the team because they were absolutely exhausted in a hostile environment against a team playing for its playoff life. Especially when the effort and the heart was in it. The body? Not so much, at times.
It's why when I look at the standings after a game like this and see a potential first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, I don't think it'd be too surprising for the Mavericks to win. Shocking? Of course. But not impossible, with the weaknesses all the Western Conference teams have shown in March and April.
Tonight, the Mavericks proved they won't go out in the first round with a whimper. They proved the 2011 championship isn't going to cloud over and waste this short season.
They proved that they're going to fight. And honestly, that was in question a few weeks ago. Don't get me wrong. This team has a plethora of problems.
But the will to fight doesn't appear to be one of them. Not after tonight.