Earl K. Sneed reports from Cleveland, where the short-handed Mavericks rallied together to end a three-game losing streak without the services of Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler.
CLEVELAND — The Mavericks would prefer to forget the events that transpired Saturday night in Milwaukee. But the gaping hole in the middle of their lineup served as a constant reminder a night later.
Not only did the Mavericks lose their New Year’s matchup with the Bucks, 99-87, but they also may have lost their starting small forward for an extended period of time.
In the first quarter of the loss, two-time All-Star Caron Butler suffered an apparent right knee injury. Butler did not join the team when it traveled to Cleveland a night later, flying back to Dallas instead to undergo further tests and an MRI on Monday. Until the results of those tests come back, the Mavericks will not know the full extent of the injury.
And until then, Sunday night’s 104-95 win over the Cavaliers will have to be what eases their pain. The win came just in the nick of time, snapping a three-game losing skid.
“This was a much-needed win for us. With what happened to Caron last night and the tough game, it’s just been a tough 24 hours. But the guys came together and really battled hard,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of the win.
“We definitely needed to stop the bleeding,” center Tyson Chandler added. “There was no way we could come on this road trip and not come away with at least one win…Tonight, the coaches did a great job of making adjustments and it paid off.”
Fortunately for the Mavericks, one of their three fallen stars — Butler, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki — was set to return to game action Sunday night.
While Nowitzki would miss his fourth straight game due to a sprained right knee, targeting later in the week as a possible return, Marion was once again ready to hit the hardwood following his one-game absence with a thigh contusion.
“I didn’t have a choice but to suck it up and do what I had to do,” Marion explained. “It felt better today, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to go.’ I didn’t even question it. And Dirk was like, ‘Trix, you’ve got to go.’ So, that’s what it boiled down to, and my teammates were there to support me.”
The Mavericks (25-8) also called up rookie Dominique Jones from assignment with the Texas Legends, Dallas’ NBA Development League affiliate, to help fill the void left by the loss of Butler.
“I’ve been in situations like this before several times in coaching,” Carlisle said in his pre-game address to the media. “And when you lose key players, everybody’s got to raise their level. The collective spirit and unity has got to get even stronger, and you’ve got to find a way to battle through it. It’s not easy, and Cleveland is going through the same thing right now.”
Facing an equally short-handed Cavaliers team, the Mavericks hoped to show that collective spirit while trying to bring their losing streak to an end. The Mavs also took the court hoping to hand the Cavaliers (8-26) a 17th loss in their last 18 games.
And with everyone pitching in, that’s exactly what the Mavericks did.
With both Butler and Nowitzki out, Carlisle was forced to put together a three-guard lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and swingman DeShawn Stevenson to play alongside Marion and Chandler in a makeshift starting unit. The lineup immediately set the tone by opening the game with the first eight points of the night, before quickly taking a double-digit advantage.
“We got off to a very good start. We were active defensively and playing well in the flow. And Marion gave us a huge lift. He’s gonna be a real key guy for us, as he always is,” Carlisle said.
After the Mavericks’ lead reached 14, however, the Cavaliers came rallying back behind former Mav Antawn Jamison, cutting Dallas’ edge to just 27-25 at the end of one. Both Marion and Chandler scored eight first-quarter points.
Cleveland’s surge continued early in the second quarter, but after the two teams exchanged the lead, the Mavericks kept the Cavaliers at bay behind driving scores by J.J. Barea and Jones.
“We’ve got great shooters out there, and all I have to do is just get in the lane or start it off with a drive-and-kick and just be confident and play,” Jones said.
The quarter belonged to Jones and Stevenson, as the rookie scored with drives to the hoop while the 11-year pro poured in shots from behind the arc.
“There was a stretch there late first quarter, early second, where they made at run at our bench guys and our bench guys sucked it up and made a run right back at them,” the coach said. “And I thought that was probably the most important stretch of the game.”
The Jones-Stevenson duo, along with Kidd’s timely shooting and Chandler’s dominance inside, helped the Mavericks regain a controlling lead of as much as 15. And with Jones seeing a lot of time at point guard within multiple three-guard lineups, the Mavericks took a 55-47 margin into the halftime intermission.
Chandler led the way with 11 points to go with five rebounds two quarters in, as five Mavericks scored at least seven points at the midway point. Meanwhile, the Mavericks held the lead despite being outshot, 57 percent to 49 percent, in the first half by scoring off Cleveland’s turnovers and miscues.
As he did in the second quarter, Stevenson got the Mavericks started in the right direction with his perimeter shooting coming out of the locker room. And as the sharpshooter found success so too did his team, with the Mavericks’ lead reaching its largest mark at 17. But once again the Cavaliers stormed back, heading into the fourth down just 79-69.
Offense was at a premium early in the fourth, but the Mavericks were able to widen the lead. Sticking with the theme of the game, however, the Cavaliers put together a string of scores against Dallas’ second unit to trim their deficit to single digits.
But behind a combination of scores by Terry and Marion, once the Dallas starters returned to the floor, the Mavericks began the process of closing the door on the Cavaliers in front of the Quicken Loans Arena crowd.
“They made runs at us and we had to answer them. And we were able to do it,” Carlisle explained.
Fittingly, it was Marion that put the game away on a runner in the lane with 49.4 ticks left to bring his fourth-quarter total to 10 points. The Mavericks then put the finishing touches on the win with Kidd at the foul line in the final minutes to move all five starters into double figures.
“Me and my teammates just got it done,” Marion simply said. “We helped each other out and we saw something that they couldn’t guard and we kept going to it. And I liked that. We just took advantage of it and got it done.”
Marion finished with a team-high 22 points on 11-of-16 shooting, while Stevenson reached a new season-high with his 21 points on 6-of-13 from the floor and 5-of-12 from 3-point land.
“Stevenson had a huge night. I thought his threes were timely all night long. And I thought everybody played well,” Carlisle said.
“The offense is designed for everybody to get wide. And Jason Kidd and Jason Terry did a good job of finding me. I had wide-open looks and just shot them,” Stevenson modestly said.
Out of his normal sixth man role and into the first unit, Terry scored 18 points, while Chandler tallied a double-double with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Kidd pitched in 10 points to go along with eight assists.
And in his return to the team, Jones posted nine points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists to serve as the Mavericks’ key contributor off the bench.
“He [Jones] gave us a big lift,” Carlisle said with high praise for his first-year guard. “He defended well, his penetration was a factor, he found people and he has a way of getting to the free throw line. So, his arrival today was timely and it really helped us.”
Meanwhile, Jamison led the struggling Cavaliers with a game-high 35 points on 14-of-22 from the floor. Ramon Sessions was the only other Cavalier to score in double figures with his 19 points off the Cleveland bench.
The Mavericks scored 20 points off Cleveland’s 15 turnovers, while the Cavaliers forced Dallas into just 10 giveaways that led to nine points at the other end. And even though the Mavericks were outshot, 51 percent to 48 percent, breaking a span of 37 games with their opponent shooting below 50 percent, the team does return to Dallas with its three-game losing streak ended.
“This was real big,” Stevenson said. “Confidence-wise we were a little down on ourselves. But to come out here and play well and get this win is just a good feeling.”
Note: The Mavericks return to the American Airlines Center Tuesday night to host the Portland Trail Blazers, a squad that the Mavericks beat, 103-98, on Dec. 15. That game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting the American Airlines Center box office, logging on to Mavs.com or by calling 214-747-MAVS (6287).
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