The Dallas Mavericks could have won Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, just like they could have beat the Detroit Pistons three days before. The games were close. The final deficit was single digits. Dallas didn't play bad basketball -- just average. Certainly, their execution was better than the beginning of this five-game losing streak, when they dropped games to clearly inferior teams like Sacramento and Denver.
But when you've lost five straight -- the longest losing streak with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki since 2008 -- that doesn't matter.
"It doesn't matter, because we're not coming up with wins," Wesley Matthews said.
The five straight losses has dropped the Mavericks to exactly .500, at 33-33. The playoffs, which seemed inevitable a week ago, maybe with Dallas even rising to the fifth seed, now rest on shaky ground. The Mavericks still have a clear leg up, but the upcoming six games stretch against Charlotte, Cleveland, Golden State, Portland twice and the Warriors again must make the Mavericks' decision makers very, very nervous.
Truth be told, the Mavericks look like the team we thought they were eight months ago, when DeAndre Jordan skipped out on life with Parsons in Uptown to stay in his more comfortable role as a Clippers starter. Zaza Pachulia finally is who the Milwaukee Bucks thought he was when they traded him away for nothing. Deron Williams has slid into the player that had Brooklyn Nets fans exasperated and fed up.
"To this point, everything points to staying the course," Rick Carlisle said. "But I'm open minded."
What's that famous definition of insanity? It's doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results? That's somewhat applicable here -- maybe it's time for a Justin Anderson or Salah Mejri for 10 minutes here or there. But there aren't really drastic changes the Mavericks can make, not ones that they already haven't been trying.
What was the fourth quarter if not a change? Dallas went small, really small, putting Dirk Nowitzki at center next to Chandler Parsons. Dallas had lost all of their first three frames, not good enough on defense to hamper Indiana and without the offense to keep up. Small ball allowed them to catch up, coming as close as a blown David Lee layup to tying the game, but then Indiana scored on eight out of nine trips down the floor because unsurprisingly, an undersized unit with just one plus defender (and with the way Matthews has been playing, even that's questionable) just isn't going to keep up for an entire quarter.
Rick Carlisle's not insane. He's trying different things, even if they aren't the solutions you'd like to see. The real answer is a pessimistic one: there aren't any good answers or solutions on this team, not really. They don't have the bench shooters they need to sustain their offense when the starting unit leaves, or to supplement them when somebody's struggling. None of their big men are quality defenders.
"We've got to earn our way back up over .500, and it's not going to get easier," Rick Carlisle said.
He's damn right about that.