Dirk Nowitzki was out for the game to rest. Neither Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews could find their shot. With the miserable Suns in Dallas on Sunday, the responsibility of escaping with a win -- no matter how ugly -- fell to Deron Williams.
He delivered. The Mavericks entered the fourth quarter down three points and finally clawed back ahead, outscoring the Suns 23-9 in the final frame. Up 82-76 with two minutes to go, Williams slashed through the lane for a sweet reverse layup and followed it up by leaning into a 3-pointer that gave him 27 points and sealed the 91-78 win. They were desperately needed buckets from the 31-year-old veteran as the Mavericks slog through mid-season drudgery.
There's no doubt they're tired -- physically, mentally, some combination of both. Dallas played 18 games in January, tying a team record, and haven't had consecutive days off since Jan. 3 and 4. Going back to the day after Christmas, the Mavericks have played 21 games in 37 days with four road trips mixed into that stretch. The All-Star break can't come soon enough for a team that has been run ragged, but until it finally arrives on Feb. 10, the older veterans in Dallas still have to push through.
"This stretch ends tomorrow, in my mind," Rick Carlisle said. "I've never seen a stretch (of games) like this."
After Monday's game against Atlanta, the Mavericks only have four more outings stretched across eight games before the break arrives. For Dallas, it's a significant one. They'll have nine days off, and barring a last-second All-Star inclusion for Dirk Nowitzki, only Dwight Powell is headed to the Toronto festivities. It's not a 10-day vacation, noted voice of reason Zaza Pachulia warns, but it's a needed breath of fresh air.
"You're talking about 10 days," Pachulia said. "It might be scary too at some point, obviously you're not talking about not doing anything and getting out of shape, but we have veterans. We've been in this situation many times.
Wesley Matthews might need it more than anyone. Coming off an Achilles injury last season, Matthews' shooting numbers started to stabilize in December only to fall back off a cliff this month. Matthews finished the month scoring nearly 12 points but only shot 39.5 percent from the floor and a shade under 32 percent from behind the arc.
Still, Matthews isn't quitting on these five games coming up. Of course he's not. This is a guy who suffered an Achilles rupture and came back eight months later, after all. He's a gamer. You should listen to Carlisle sing his praises every chance he gets, like this quote from Sunday night.
"He leads our team in minutes played," Carlisle said. "He's that important to our team. He's one of our leaders, he's our best individual defender on the perimeter and he sets a culture tone that has really lifted our defense this year."
Carlisle continued to assuage fear about his struggles: "He's fine. I'm not going to fistfight him tomorrow to try and convince him to sit out. Forget it."
Matthews, to his credit, isn't blaming tired legs or the fatigue that sets in with every NBA player halfway through a season.
"No, I'm really not (heavy legging)," Matthews said. "I might be, but I don't feel it. And I'm not going to tell myself I am. Tomorrow's a whole new day."
But given he has only made three of his last 20 long ball attempts and has only one instances of 40-plus percent shooting from behind the arc since Jan. 5, Matthews remains confident but admits he might have to change up his obstinate routine, just a little bit.
"I'm not concerned about (the poor shooting)," Matthews said. "I'm pissed off by it. I'm irritated and frustrated by it. I'm not worried about it at all. Just gotta keep shooting. I'm going to keep shooting it, I'm going to keep shooting it, I'm going to keep attacking it the same way I have been, (the way) I've always done. It's just a matter of time before that glass breaks. I might have to change a little bit, so I'm not necessarily hunting a three. My mentality, my personality is that you fall off the horse, you get back on that same horse, get back on that same horse. It's a kind of stubborn mentality. I might have to go around it."
Certainly, the Mavericks are hoping and expected a different, fresher Matthews after the All-Star break as use the 30 games to gear up for playoff basketball. That could apply for a lot of players on the roster: Parsons usually plays better after the break, the 37-year-old Nowitzki could always use the extra rest, and even the team as a whole will benefit from a few focused practices with the entire team healthy, something that has come few and far between this year.
Sunday just needed one of those veterans to come through to survive one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NBA, and Deron did that. The next five games before the break will likely have a similar feel. After the break, though, that's when a regrouped Mavericks squad can really push towards the very peak of their potential for this season.
"Absolutely," Pachulia said when asked if the team's best basketball was still ahead of them. "That's the goal for us, to be playing the best basketball after (the break) headed into the playoffs."