The Mavericks fought through the absence of their coach, the illness of a key reserve and an untimely injury to their star player to escape Oklahoma City with a second road win over the Thunder, writes Earl K. Sneed.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The deck may have appeared stacked against Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey and his team coming into Monday night’s matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but that wasn’t going to prevent the Dallas squad from playing the hand it was dealt.
The Mavericks (24-5) took their 10-1 road record up Interstate 35 in search of a 17th win in an 18-game stretch. But in order to claim that victory they would not only have to slow down the NBA’s scoring leader, Kevin Durant, but also have to take the court without head coach Rick Carlisle and backup power forward Brian Cardinal. And less than midway through the night, they would add their top scorer to that list, when Dirk Nowitzki went down early in the second quarter with an injury before finishing the game as spectator watching from the locker room.
But nothing would nor could slow down the Mavericks on this night, as the team battled through all the obstacles and snatched a 103-93 win away from the Thunder (21-11) on its home court. The Mavs claimed their second victory of the season in Oklahoma City Arena after also leaving with a 111-103 win back on Nov. 24.
“I thought the guys pulled together,” Casey said after the win. “They really did an excellent job of pulling together and banding together…It should be a confidence booster for a lot of our guys, because they came into a tough situation and everybody had to step up a level with Rick not here, Brian not here and Dirk out.”
“We have a bunch of guys who are on a mission right now,” point guard Jason Kidd added. “No matter who was hurt or who was not here, we had to go out and play and give ourselves a chance to win.”
And that’s just what the Mavericks did.
But the Mavs knew that they would be somewhat shorthanded when the night began. Carlisle didn’t travel with the team after doctors advised the coach to remain behind in Dallas while recovering from a minor knee scope procedure last Wednesday. Meanwhile, Cardinal was ruled out of the game after suffering an illness earlier in the day.
That put even more on Casey’s shoulders, as the fill-in coach tried to battle through the absences while also trying to help the team recapture its intensity following a five-day layoff.
However, the Mavericks’ veteran leadership showed up early, responding from the Thunder’s 8-3 start with a flurry of three-point baskets to spark a 21-6 spurt in the opening quarter. But after the Mavericks’ superior shooting carried them to a lead as large as 12, the Thunder battled back, cutting the Dallas lead to 34-29 heading to the second stanza.
The Mavericks swished in 5-of-10 from behind the 3-point arc in the period to help the team tie its best first-quarter scoring output of the season.
“I was concerned about a rest or rust issue in the first quarter, and we came out and played one of the best free-flowing first quarters we’ve had in a long time. And that kind of answered that question,” Casey said.
But the Mavericks’ attack took a serious blow when Nowitzki came down awkwardly at the 9:10-mark of the second quarter after connecting on a jumper, which was accompanied by a foul on Thunder big man Serge Ibaka. After making the free throw, the 7-footer headed for the locker room with head athletic trainer Casey Smith. A short time later it was announced by the team that Nowitzki suffered a sore right knee and his return was doubtful. He never returned.
“I strained a little muscle in the back of my knee,” Nowitzki explained. “But we don’t really know everything yet. I had X-rays and everything came back good, but I’ll have an MRI done tomorrow morning. And then we’ll go from there.
“It was just on the landing. I’d take an ankle sprain over this any day. This is a weird injury, I’ve never had it before. If it were a rolled ankle, I would have went back out there,” the 7-footer added. “I’ll look at it and see what it is tomorrow. I’m kind of day-to-day at this point.”
With the Mavericks’ go-to scorer out, Thunder swingman James Harden began to assert himself at the offensive end. And feeding off the energy of its home crowd, the Thunder rallied to tie the game at 56-all going into the halftime break.
Nowitzki exited the game with 13 points. And when he went down swingman Caron Butler provided the offense, finishing the half with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Meanwhile, Durant’s 16 first-half points helped the Thunder remain in the game, although the Mavericks’ 47 percent shooting just bettered Oklahoma City’s 46 percent at the other end.
The Thunder attempted to leave the Nowitzki-less Mavs in its tracks in the third quarter. But shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson and versatile forward Shawn Marion were having no part of that, keeping the Mavericks in the game.
“This is a veteran ball club and we’ve pretty much seen everything,” Kidd said. “Dirk is very reliable and durable. But when he left, I don’t think anybody blinked. I think everybody just stayed the course.”
While Stevenson did his damage from the outside, Marion’s penetrating scores proved to be a difference-maker.
“Shawn Marion had a heck of a third quarter. I think he had flashbacks to his All-Star years. That quarter was huge,” Casey said.
But Durant willed his team back in front, although the Mavericks got another timely lift when fourth-string center Alexis Ajinca — playing at the 4 — found nothing but the bottom of the net on a corner 3-pointer.
“That three he [Ajinca] hit was either gonna be an airball or a swish, and luckily for us it was a swish…That was a huge shot for him and a shot in the arm for our guys,” Casey explained.
Still, the Thunder took an 81-79 edge into the fourth quarter. But that only meant that it was time for even more Mavericks to step up.
Sixth man Jason Terry and backup point guard J.J. Barea kindly obliged early in the period. While Terry’s knack for the big moment produced an array of fourth-quarter jumpers, Barea’s pesky defense frustrated the Thunder’s players, as the undersized guard drew two offensive fouls.
Meanwhile, the Dallas defense began to take over, suffocating the Thunder with the zone look that has become the Mavericks’ trademark this season. But the Mavs still needed a knockout punch, and Butler delivered it, draining a long two to put the Mavs up, 101-91, inside of two minutes remaining. The team never looked back down the stretch on its way to a double-digit road win and the eighth straight victory away from Big D.
Holding the Thunder to just 4-of-18 shooting in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks surrendered just 12 points in the last 12 minutes of play. It’s the fewest a Mavericks’ opponent has scored in the fourth period since the team held Phoenix to just nine points in the last quarter of a game back in April of 2008.
“Holding a great offensive team to just 12 points in the fourth quarter was huge for us. And offensively we found a way,” Casey said.
“That was just an amazing win,” Nowitzki added while praising his teammates. “I was back here (in the locker room) yelling so loud. It was an unbelievable second half. Guys were stepping up left and right, making big shots. And the defense in the fourth quarter was amazing. This is a great, great team effort. I’m proud of the guys.”
Butler’s 21 points and Marion’s 20 led six Mavericks in double figures. Terry matched Nowitzki’s 13 points, while Stevenson pitched in 12 points on 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line. But Casey credited Kidd with engineering the victory, after the future Hall of Famer finished just one rebound shy of his 106th career triple-double, tallying 10 points, 10 assists and nine boards.
“Jason Kidd directing everything and running the show willed us to a victory,” Casey said.
“With guys out and Coach [Carlisle] out, we could have easily said, ‘We’re here just for show.’ But we have a bunch of guys that have character and are on a mission,” Kidd said.
And despite Durant’s 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting, the Mavericks finished the night outshooting the Thunder, 49 percent to 42 percent. The Mavs also overcame Oklahoma City’s 24-6 edge in fast-break scoring by knocking down 11-of-23 from behind the arc.
Now the Mavericks try to do it again, this time at home, when they welcome in the Toronto Raptors to the American Airlines Center Tuesday night. Both teams will take the court on the second night of back-to-backs, after the Raptors fell 96-85 in Memphis Monday night.
Carlisle is expected to be back on the sidelines for that game, though Nowitzki’s and Cardinal’s statuses are unclear. But as Monday night proved, even if the Mavericks are shorthanded, they still may have a couple of aces up their sleeves.
Note: The Mavericks return to the American Airlines Center Tuesday night for a date with the Toronto Raptors. That game will tip off at 7: 30 p.m. CT. 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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