A whole new game. That’s the NBA’s tagline for its restarted season within the confines of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. It makes sense. The play conditions and atmosphere inside the NBA Bubble are unprecedented and new. Unfortunately, after one game, there doesn’t appear to be anything new about the Dallas Mavericks.
After a flurry of historic offense in the first half that saw the Mavericks put up 85 points by halftime and maintain a steady lead going into and through much of the fourth quarter, the Mavs did what they too often do. They blew the lead and choked away the game in the final minutes of the fourth and overtime, losing to the Houston Rockets, 153-149. Wash, rinse, repeat.
“I just know that this is a tough loss,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “This is about as tough as it gets, and it just comes down to basic execution. The free-throw block-out was a big culprit. We missed free throws down the stretch — that was a culprit. NBA games are going to get more grinding as the game goes on and Houston made some plays.”
Let’s look at these three points.
The amazing putback to tie the game in the final seconds by Robert Covington off a James Harden missed free throw was remarkable. Covington uses a swim move — like an NFL lineman — to get behind Maxi Kleber to get in the paint and take up a perfect position on the opposite side of the rim. That’s simply great hustle and a great play.
“We kind of had bad luck over there [giving up the offensive rebound after Harden’s free throw at the end of regulation],” Luka Doncic said.
As for the Mavericks’ missed free throws, they’ve been an issue all season. Even before the team left for Orlando, Carlisle was harping on the need to improve free throw shooting. Dallas missed 10 of its 38 free throw attempts. Making those misses sting a little more is the fact that the Mavs and Chime, their jersey sponsor, are chipping in $500 to charities for every made free throw in the eight seeding games. The Boys and Girls Club of Dallas missed out on an additional $5,000 last night.
Then there’s the grinding nature of the end of the game. If you want to characterize it as such, that’s fine. The reality is that Dallas took the foot off the gas early and tried to coast to a win rather than buckle down and finish off a Houston team that made numerous mistakes down the stretch.
It all started around the 7:00 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Mavericks up, 131-120, after Dorian Finney-Smith drained a 3-pointer when Kleber grabbed an offensive board. The Mavericks would go on to make one of their next nine shots, some of them gimmies, over the span of about six minutes. The Rockets, on the other hand, made the game competitive, pulling within four points, 133-129, with 1:46 to play.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the Mavericks were able to make a sort of mini run and push their lead to seven points with 45 seconds to play, 138-131. Teams up seven or more points with under a minute to play in regulation were 711-2 all-time entering Friday night. They are now 711-3.
“I think we should have stayed probably more offensive-minded the way we were the whole game,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “At the end we tried to slow it down and the pressure was up obviously, and we tried to slow it down, and kind of just cruise and win the game. We just have to go out there and keep playing aggressively, attack and, you know, obviously we still had many chances to win the game.”
The Mavericks late-game struggles are well known at this point. Coming into the game, Dallas had 16 losses of five points or less. Doris Burke, who was calling the game for ESPN, kept wondering out loud whether those struggles were so ingrained in the players that they took a form of some kind of mental fear or anxiety. It’s a fair question to ask.
Just before the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 11, the Mavericks had a similar meltdown against the Indiana Pacers. In fact, there have been plenty just like it. Last night’s game against Houston wasn’t an aberration, it’s part of a trend.
“A lot of this stuff comes down to details,” Carlisle said. “I take full responsibility for the loss. I want to keep the pressure off the players. They really played their butts off, but we were unable to make a few of the key plays we needed to make.”
The NBA’s restart was supposed to be a fresh opportunity, not just for the league but for the teams. A clean slate for everyone. After one game and yet another blown lead leading to a bad loss, it’s clear that the Mavericks didn’t come to Orlando to play a whole new game. They just dusted off the same one they were playing before.