The Mavericks missed Dirk Nowitzki's presence Thursday night, writes Earl K. Sneed, as the team fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder while the All-Star power forward missed his sixth straight game.
DALLAS — Although the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder are separated by just a few hours and the Red River, you’d probably get mixed comments in regard to Thursday night’s nationally-televised matchup being just the latest installment of one of the NBA’s newest rivalries.
In fact, there is no rivalry as far as the Mavericks (26-9) are concerned.
“I was in Spain with Serge Ibaka, and he made it a point to tell me that they’re our rivals,” sixth man Jason Terry said after the Mavericks’ morning shootaround when recalling his trip alongside the Thunder big man while participating in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Program.
“And I was like, ‘You guys haven’t really beat us that many times.’ And he was like, ‘No, we look at y’all as a rival, and we’re gonna try to beat you every time we play,’” Terry added. “If your name is not the San Antonio Spurs, I don’t think there’s a rivalry there. But we know that they’re a dangerous team.”
The Thunder (24-13) had a slightly different perspective.
“It doesn’t become a rivalry until you have playoff victories and playoff losses and it’s multiple years,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “With the location, it does make sense. But right now, they’ve been places we want to go. And until it becomes a rivalry, we have to be able to get to those places.”
With the rivalry tag on ice, at least for now, the Mavericks looked to sweep the season series with a win in the third meeting between the two teams, as the Thunder made its only trip to Dallas this season.
But if the Mavericks didn’t have a reason to call the matchup a rivalry before Thursday night, their feelings may have changed after the Thunder walked into the American Airlines Center and exited with a 99-95 win on Dallas’ home floor.
And after back-to-back wins helped the Mavs overcome Caron Butler’s likely season-ending surgery to repair a ruptured right patellar tendon, the team clearly missed leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki’s presence Saturday night as the 7-footer missed his sixth straight game due to a sprained right knee.
“We missed Dirk the entire game,” center Tyson Chandler said. ”He changes the game. When he’s in the game, he stretches the floor on both ends. He’s a bigger body and he plays great team defense. He gets a lot of slack for his defense, but he knows how to play team defense, knows how to funnel and communicate out there.”
But that big body wasn’t available for the Mavericks to help prevent the Thunder from avenging two losses in the Oklahoma City Arena earlier in the season.
The Mavericks sprinted to an early 8-2 spurt led by versatile forward Shawn Marion, who once again started in place of Nowitzki. Marion quickly moved into double figures, boosting the Mavericks’ offensive attack. Behind the four-time All-Star’s 12-point first quarter, the Mavericks easily sprinted to a 30-23 lead after connecting on 13-of-22 from the floor.
“My teammates were looking for me and the ball was coming to me and I was making things happen,” Marion said. ”But our emphasis was winning this game.”
The Thunder charged back close early in the second quarter. But a huge period by backup point guard J.J. Barea gave Marion a helping hand while he continued his big first half. And behind Marion’s 21 first-half points, the Mavericks headed into the intermission with a 55-51 lead.
Outshooting the Thunder through two quarters, 59 percent to 47 percent, the Mavericks held the edge at the midway point. And although they hit just 2-of-11 from 3-point range, the Mavericks’ 32-22 advantage in points in the paint was enough to offset the poor perimeter shooting.
But the first half was not a complete success, according to Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
“I really thought our undoing was not having a stronger first half. That would have put us in a stronger position headed into the second half. We had 10 turnovers for 12 points, and a lot of them were timely,” Carlisle said.
The third quarter, however, belonged to the Thunder, as scoring leader Kevin Durant and his henchmen caught fire. Despite a late Barea-led surge, the Mavs headed to the fourth quarter down on the scoreboard, 73-70.
“In this situation tonight, we kind of had them on the ropes and let them off the hook,” Chandler said. “We had a 10-point lead (in the first half), then I felt like the momentum changed at that point in the game. We had some turnovers and they were able to get some easy baskets. And when you give a team like that life they feed off it, and they took the lead in the third quarter. It seems like we were never able to catch up.”
“We had them on their heels and we didn’t put them away when we should have. We had a 10-point lead, and we should have pulled away and left them at the gate. They put together a little run, and the next thing you know we’ve got a battle on our hands,” Marion echoed.
Things got even worse for the Mavs in the final period, as the Thunder opened up a double-digit lead behind a fast-breaking attack.
“They had more energy than we did, and once they started to get a couple of the run-out dunks it seemed like that got them excited and that turned the momentum,” Chandler explained.
“Well, they got their momentum going, and we went away from what was working in the first half that we didn’t do in the second half,” Marion added. ”For the most part they hit some shots and made it hard for us.”
Jason Terry tried to rally his troops with a personal 5-0 run. And after DeShawn Stevenson’s stepback jumper, the Mavs trailed, 93-85, with just 2:59 left.
But Nick Collison’s tip-in on the offensive end for the Thunder with only 1:18 left gave Oklahoma City a 97-86 advantage, essentially closing the door on the Mavericks. Soon after, Carlisle pulled his starters and emptied the bench, making Stevenson’s back-to-back threes in the final seconds too little, too late.
“It really was a tale of the first quarter versus the last three,” Carlisle explained. “We had a very good first quarter with a seven-point lead. Then we lost the last three quarters. It seemed like a half thing, but I think the reality is that we needed to gain more ground in the first half.”
Despite Marion’s season-high 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting, the Mavericks didn’t have enough to combat Durant’s game-high 28 points on 11-of-22 from the floor to lead four Oklahoma City players in double figures. And after the Mavericks’ success in the painted area in the first half, the Thunder concluded the game with a 50-42 edge in the interior.
Still, five Mavericks reached double digits — Marion, Terry (19), Barea (14), Stevenson (14) and Chandler (14) — as both teams finished the night shooting 47 percent from the floor. Meanwhile, point guard Jason Kidd was rendered scoreless, going 0-for-7, although he did register 10 rebounds and seven assists on the night.
“I thought I’d have a couple of shots go in, but if my game was ever judged on me making baskets I probably wouldn't be in the league,” Kidd said. “But I had some good looks. They just didn’t go in.”
And despite Chandler’s season-high tying 18 rebounds, matching an output that also came against the Thunder, which helped the Mavericks to a 47-45 rebounding edge, the Mavericks admit that they failed to keep the Thunder off the glass when it mattered most.
“I think we struggled defensively in the second half, we struggled on the boards, and the timely second-chance points were our undoing down the stretch. That is really one of the emphasis, and having said that, we outrebounded them by two total over the whole game. So, they were really just timely plays,” Carlisle concluded.
Now the Mavericks will take Friday to get in another practice session before Saturday night’s rematch with the Orlando Magic. The Mavericks knocked off the new-look Magic, 105-99, on Dec. 21. They’ll try to do it again when All-Star center Dwight Howard and Co. head into Big D.
The team is also hopeful to have Nowitzki back for the game, although he remains listed as day-to-day.
“Right now, we just have to ride the ship, be patient, not get too crazy,” Chandler said. “And we’ve got to play with the players we have.”
Note: The Mavericks conclude their three-game homestand against the Magic Saturday night at the American Airlines Center. Trying to sweep the season series, the Mavs will face off with the Magic in a matchup that 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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