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3 things we learned in the Mavericks’ tough loss to the Hornets, 97-87

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The Mavericks put up a good fight in Charlotte, but didn’t get the win.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight’s game wasn’t beautiful basketball. It was the sort of game you get between two defense-oriented teams who are both having an off shooting night (the Mavericks shot just 31 percent for the first three quarters of the game, and the Hornets made just 66 percent of their free throws). But even though they didn’t get the win, the Mavericks were actually, at times, almost fun to watch as they played hard on defense and kept themselves in this game right down to the very end.

The first quarter was painful to watch. The Mavericks looked like a team on the road, on the second night of a back to back, missing a good portion of their starting line-up (Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut, along with J.J. Barea and Seth Curry, sat out the game due to a combination of injury and rest).

Dallas scored just 14 points on 31 percent shooting during the opening period. It was seven minutes into the game before any Maverick besides Deron Williams made a field goal. Charlotte also looked sloppy for most of the quarter, but turned it up toward the end of the first.

Things improved in the second quarter, at least on the defensive end. The Mavericks still shot poorly (33 percent overall and 21 percent from three), but after Charlotte briefly expanded the lead to 11, Dallas was able to end the quarter trailing by just three points.

This was thanks in large part to a lot of hustle by the Mavericks (especially Justin Anderson, who had 9 first-half points), both on defense and going after second-chance points (they had five offensive rebounds to Charlotte’s two). It also helped that Harrison Barnes was finally able to connect on some of his shots.

Despite being having just played last night, the Mavericks started the second half with the same effort that kept them in the game during the first. It looked at times like Charlotte was about to pull away, but Dallas never let them get too far out in front. Their shooting was still poor, especially from three, but the Mavs kept the grind up on defense and hustled after every loose ball.

But an and-one from Spencer Hawes with just over a minute left in the third (and a traveling call on Justin Anderson on the subsequent possession) pushed the Hornets’ lead to eight.

The Mavericks finally started to show signs of offensive life in the fourth. Anderson nailed his second and third three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to open the final quarter. The Mavericks followed with a 10-2 run to bring the game to within two points, but although the Mavericks played well enough in the second half to keep hope alive, but Charlotte never let this one get away from them, finding an answer for every Mavs run.

Dwight Powell fouled out on a loose-ball foul with the Mavs down three and 1:18 left on the clock, and Lamb’s made free throws put the game away for the Hornets.

The defense continues to look better

The Mavericks’ tired legs may have shown on offense, but the team looked surprisingly energized on defense. Given how few of their shots were falling during the first three quarters, it was genuinely surprising to look up and see how close the score was. Anything the Mavs could do to out-hustle the Hornets, they were doing it. Dallas out-rebounded Charlotte on the strength of their offensive rebounds and did a fantastic job making the Hornets work for their shots (they took 11 fewer than their average FGA). And Kemba Walker had an incredibly quiet game.

This was the sort of slog that gives Dallas their best shot at winning a game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough on the second night of a back to back.

It’s great to see players returning to form

Deron Williams hasn’t had a great game since returning from his calf injury last week, but with the exception of his poor three-point shooting tonight (he was just 1-7), he had his best game in nearly a month. Despite missing nearly all of his threes, Williams scored 14 points and made 5-7 from two. He also dished out eight assists and pulled down three rebounds.

Devin Harris has also been working his way back into form. Tonight was just his second game, and he’s still limited to 11 minutes per game, but he looked pretty good during those minutes, making his first basket of the season and a beautiful assist to Justin Anderson.

But it’s still not enough

As heartening as it was to see how hard the Mavericks were working on defense, it just wasn’t enough. While Williams’ shot looked better, Wesley Matthews had one of his worst shooting nights since coming out of his slump, going 1-11 from three. And Justin Anderson had his best game of the year, contributing 18 points and three rebounds, but the team still looked like a team that employs four NBA players who went undrafted. The number of turnovers wasn’t astronomical, but many of them came from plays that looked a little sloppy and inexperienced.

The Mavericks lost this game in part because it was practically a scheduled loss. But it was also a tough reminder that unlike recent years, close games just aren’t going to break Dallas’ way this season.

The Mavericks will face the Chicago Bulls back in Dallas on Saturday.