Is this as low emotionally as the Mavericks have been all season?
Wesley Matthews hesitated, thinking. "I dunno," he decided. "It's the NBA. We've got another game on Wednesday. Yeah, this one sucks."
It was a valid question. Dallas' 109-90 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday was their third straight, and the first two were even worse, against the lottery teams in the Nuggets and Kings. Those losses were tough, Matthews admitted, but emotionally the Mavericks are fine.
Then again, it was Matthews who took offense when a reporter asked him if the team has a "talent problem."
"A talent problem?" Matthews replied, a bit indignant. "No. It doesn't have a talent problem."
The two argued semantics of the question at Matthews' locker room. "You're not going to hurt my feelings," Matthews said. "You guys can pick apart our team all you want, but we've got talent on this team." But it was Matthews who brought the matter back up minutes later. Given his 27 minutes without a field goal, Matthews' sensitivity was a bit predictable. But regardless, his temperament probably isn't too far off from what the Mavericks are actually feeling, no matter what they actually say.
Unlike last year, the players on this Dallas roster do like each other. That's not a concern, not even in a subdued locker room with just three players speaking to media. (In a blowout loss, that's nothing out of the ordinary.)
"It's definitely not a chemistry issue," Chandler Parsons said. "We all like each other, we all come to the gym every day and get along great. We've got 18 games to try and be playing our best basketball going into the playoffs."
That's better than the moody locker rooms of last year featuring Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo, but the play has somehow worsened.
"If we knew what it was, we wouldn't be losing games," Parsons said. "We got to figure it out as a team."
An upcoming eight-game stretch played exclusively against teams currently in the playoffs won't make it easy, though. That's why the two losses to non-playoff teams last weekend were more than frustrating. That's why Matthews was snippily arguing with the media while a teammate threw in a potshot, too. Sure, player-reporter relationships can always be antagonistic, but this felt more like exasperation boiling over, directed at a target who just happened to be in the way.
Generally, though, the Mavericks have beat the teams they're supposed to. Problems arise against playoff squads, where they're 9-20 against teams above .500 this year. Dallas believes they have the talent to compete with potential Western Conference opponents, but what professional organization doesn't?
"We do (have the talent)," Carlisle said. "However, our talent is based on the collection of multiple parts operating in concert to create a situation where a team can function well and win games, and we've taken a step back behind the curve the last three games. That's got to change."
Even if they didn't believe it -- and again, come on, sports are never rational -- what other choice would they have?
"You never quit, you can't quit on teammates," Dirk Nowitzki said, with the team not practicing Tuesday. "We'll get away from this one a little bit tomorrow. Come back ready to work on Wednesday."
Given this team's trajectory, Nowitzki is at least honest about one thing: the playoffs shouldn't be treated as a guarantee. The Mavericks' lead is enough that it should be, but at this point, Nowitzki isn't treating anything as a "for sure."
"We've got to get there," Dirk Nowitzki said. "That's what we need to worry about first. We've got a brutal schedule coming up. We laid some eggs against teams we needed to beat, and now the schedule's picking up. At this point, we have to worry about making the playoffs, we've got to take it one game at a time."