We have bad news. The fact that with regularity the Mavs are leading early, and collapsing in the fourth, doesn't mean that they are 'almost there.' Thursday's result in Sacramento - a 117-112 OT win - doesn't signify the finding of a cure, either.
These days we're frequently being asked on DB.com Premium Boards and elsewhere, "Why can't the Dallas Mavericks hold a lead in the fourth quarter? They are getting close to wins in almost every game now, before falling short. How soon can they be a good team again?"
We have bad news. The fact that with regularity the Mavs are leading early, and collapsing in the fourth, doesn't mean that they are "almost there."
It means that they aren't a very good team at all at this point. They are so "what they are'' that coach Rick Carlisle said after the game that he'd privately predicted yet another OT
"I was pretty sure before the game that this was going to go to overtime,'' Rick said. "I just had a feeling it was and I had a feeling we were going to win. I'm not surprised by any of it."
Oh, winning 117-112 in overtime beats the alternative for an outfit that had lost 10 of 11 games this year and 10 straight OT games as a franchise. (Dallas avoids holding the all-time record of 11 with the victory). And it was nice to finish "nice,'' especially after a troubling season-long trend really accented in the previous four games:
1. Mavs had a six-point lead late at Miami and lost.
2. Mavs had a four-point lead late at home against New Orleans and lost.
3. Mavs had an eight-point lead late at Utah and lost.
4. Mavs had a three-point lead late at the Clippers and lost.
DB.com's Michael Dugat pitches in with this ugly group of numbers: Coming into Thursday, in the fourth quarters of the previous eight games in which Dallas went 1-7, the
Mavs have scored 18.3 points on 37.6-percent shooting while opponents have 24.6 points on 46.6-percent shooting.
Our measure of "good'' vs. "bad''? Being able to finish? That's the way the NBA game has always worked, but the Mavs have been so good for so long that we've forgotten how the other half lives. Good teams playing bad teams can somewhat fiddle around for the first three quarters, knowing if they keep things halfway close, some intensity for the last quarter will be enough to allow them to prevail. Go through the motions, give just enough effort to collect the win, and save the energy for something challenging.
Being a bad team doesn't mean it's a squad bereft of talent. Consider the upticks in Sacto: O.J. Mayo has 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, the third double-double of his career. He and Vince Carter (23 points, 10 in the fourth) fueled an offense-driven comeback. All the way down to the two Jameses, Bernard and Mike, an assortment of guys showed a little something here.
But being a bad team -- and at 14-23, just a notch above the Sad-Sac Kings, the Mavs are undeniably bad -- does very simply mean that these players haven't developed the game skills needed, as a team, to outdo the opposition.
Dirk Nowitzki's return to 100 percent certainly figures to provide a major boost in potential; he scored 17 and is still getting there. But his presence alone is far from enough to turn this around. In past years when it got to crunch time, the Mavs could put it on autopilot, with Dirk creating and scoring, Jet creating and scoring, and the two of them in their well-honed two-man game. Without Jet to work with, Dirk's shots take far more work, and his potential is greatly reduced.
And with a roster full of new teammates, he has no one whose game he knows well enough to play off of in a way that helps them both get easier shots. Oh, and that's not even counting Vince missing two free throws in OT, Collison jumping in the air to deliver a pass but coming down with the ball, or Dallas double-teaming the ball inside with nine seconds left in regulation and a three-point lead ... the double-team freeing the Kings to make a game-tying 3.
"It almost seemed like we were making plays to lose, not to win," Dirk said. "Hopefully with this win, all that's gone."
Of course, winning games with regularity isn't only about doing better in crunch time. Should the Mavs develop the ability to play at a higher level down the stretch, then the better teams would take notice and respond by playing with more intensity earlier in the game, needing to have a lead going into the fourth in order to collect their win.
What's the answer? The Mavs have to figure out and develop strengths they can rely on, make their use a part of their nature, and then build from there. Right now all they have is Dirk (whose performances are still up-and-down), plus a world of unknowns.
"We're taking baby steps in the right direction,'' insisted Shawn Marion. "Hopefully we can start to crawl."
Winning in Sacramento (an event shrouded by the franchise's freshly-suggested move to Seattle) had its enjoyments. ... even as it is expected, given the fact that Dallas has won 21 of 24 against this club. But until that go-to playbook of reliable options expands considerably it's going to be a long frustrating season of crawling ... a series of dead-end signs. ... and a rapidly growing cache of draft-lottery ping pong balls serving as the one semi-redeeming factor.