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The Mavericks starters are running out of time to figure it out

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There’s one preseason game left before it counts and the Mavs starters haven’t shown they’re ready yet.

NBA: Preseason-Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Carlisle’s soundbite after Wednesday’s preseason loss to the Rockets was great. It got quite the reaction while he was at the podium.

He compared the Mavericks start to Donald Trump and the media all had a laugh. It was the headline from the game and Twitter mostly wanted to praise Carlisle for his joke rather than why he felt the need to compare his starters’ performance to a leather-faced, misogynistic racist running for president.

In the locker room, Wesley Matthews saw the tweet. He let out a very brief chuckle, more of a huff really — the quote was fun but he knew what it meant.

“Make it happen,” Matthews said of the Mavs defensive intensity after the 106-91 loss. “Understand we’ll get our ass kicked every night if we don’t.”

That about sums up the starters play through the preseason so far. Every starter in the Mavs lineup has a negative net rating and Harrison Barnes, he of 23 percent shooting in the preseason, actually has the highest at minus 7.9. That seems like a big problem.

Nothing has worked. In the two games all the Mavs starters have played in together, they’ve played 42 minutes. In those 42 minutes they have an offensive rating of 95.2 and a defensive rating of 115.7. Do the math to get the net rating and your calculator/phone/computer throws itself in the garbage.

It’s the preseason, which is a nice way to shuffle the problems out of the way. Not only is it preseason, but it’s preseason with new guys in the starting group and as they always say, it’s going to take time.

The Mavs are out of time. They have one more preseason game before the season tips off next week. Presumably, none of the starters will be in against the Nuggets on Friday. That means the last couple games were the Mavs’ dress rehearsal and they’ve failed. There’s no easing into the season either — Dallas plays Indiana, Utah, Portland and Houston twice in its first five games.

Where do you even start? Barnes has carried his Finals meltdown to Dallas, Deron Williams lack of off-the-bounce juice is highlighted even more without Chandler Parsons to bail the starters out of possessions and Andrew Bogut has made some nice passes but he’s made some terrible ones too.

Bogut in particular has been leaned on far too much in the preseason. His passing is a major plus, yes and a great way for the Mavs to mitigate their lack of dribble penetration. Yet to start the game on Wednesday, too many possessions saw Bogut holding the ball at the top of the key ... and holding it ... and holding it till the shot clock crept under 10 and the possession went into scramble mode.

If Bogut is going to hold onto the ball for five to 10 seconds at a time, that’s a win for the defense. That’s not all on Bogut because the Mavericks aren’t doing enough off-the-ball to give Bogut something to work with.

“We’re all trying to learn how to play off of each other and I think we might be a little too unselfish with our cuts,” Matthews said. “But I think everyone is doing it with the right intentions.”

Que up footage from Wednesday and you’ll see a distressing amount of Bogut holding the rock, looking for something, anything and shoveling it off to a guard to hoist a desperation prayer. The Mavs off-ball cuts aren’t making enough impact and there’s just too much going on for Bogut to make a clean pass. Barnes and Matthews are excellent cutters, but they need a become a bit more familiar with each other’s timings.

Combine that with Bogut perhaps being a bit too loose with the ball — this isn’t Golden State anymore — and you have the makings of the horrific offense that was feared back in July. Bogut has 12 assists in four preseason games. That’s neat! He also has nine turnovers.

The problem with a Bogut turnover is that he’s at the top of the key and the last line of defense. A Bogut turnover is basically an instant fast break headed the other way.

andrew bogut making a bad pass

Dallas’ offense is hamstrung enough without these sorts of passes. They can’t rely on Bogut this much to get them open looks.

And don’t even mention Harrison Barnes — especially to Carlisle.

“Let’s quit asking questions about Harrison Barnes’ shooting,” Carlisle said when asked about another grizzly Barnes shooting night. “Playing without any conviction and without any force as a team is a much bigger problem.”

As bad as the offense has looked with the starters, Carlisle has a point. That 115.7 defensive rating just burns a hole through your eyeballs. The Rockets are going to be a mind-bendingly awesome offensive team. They’re going to make teams question their souls all season long.

Still though, defense is supposed to be the Mavs calling card this season. We kind of expected the offense to be rough and take some time to sort out. Hell, Matthews admitted as much.

It’s the defense that’s supposed to be a little bit quicker to get on the same page he said. It goes beyond Xs and Os.

“We gotta make it happen,” he said. “The natural part (with time together) is the offensive thing. You’ve gotta force the defensive part, impose your will — force it. We’ve gotta make it happen.”

Houston went up 23-6 at one point in the first quarter. The Rockets shot just 36 percent in the frame but they drilled seven three-pointers. Houston stretched the Mavs out and attacked them at their weak points — Harden forcing the action at Williams, Ryan Anderson taking advantage of Dirk Nowitzki’s slow rotations out behind the arc.

That can be a common thread this year. Dallas has great defenders in the starting unit with Barnes, Matthews and Bogut. Teams are going to pick on Dirk and to a lesser extent Williams to get buckets. They have to be ready.

The problem is, they don’t have that much time left. A week from now these games really count and it’s slightly worrying that Carlisle is demanding better effort and force from a veteran-laden team before the regular season has started.

Luckily it hasn’t been a total disaster. The starters pulled a 180 in the second half against Houston, winning the quarter while they were out there before being pulled for the night. Matthews has looked totally changed from a year ago, putting the ball on the floor and bouncing to the rim way quicker. He looks healthy and like his Portland self in these handful of preseason games more than he did at any point last season.

Dallas looked damn good against Oklahoma City’s starters last week but there’s one caveat — Matthews sat that game and J.J. Barea started. Having that extra ball handler really juiced the Mavs offense. Barea was a plus-12 with 15 points in 16 minutes.

That’s why I was so worried about Williams. Dallas simply has nowhere to go on offense and it feels really smoke-and-mirrors trying to watch them drum up shots inside the arc. Maybe that means a shake up in the lineup at some point, as far-fetched as it seems. Barea has been a revelation since he discovered a 3-point shot last winter and Justin Anderson simply makes things happen whenever he’s on the floor.

It won’t happen — yet. Right now though, the Mavericks don’t have the time to really tinker that much more. They need some more positive results besides a quarter here or a half there.

“We’re going to have to figure some things out here,” Carlisle said. “It’s less about strategic things and more about a collective will that we have to play with, and we’re not doing it.”