DALLAS -- The sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center groaned in unison as the arena big screens showed the replay of Wesley Matthews' right leg gruesomely buckling in the fourth quarter Friday evening.
Matthews heard it loud and clear as he stared at the hardwood, lying facedown in the spot where he fell, hoping he hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight March.
“Get up,” Matthews thought to himself as both teams huddled by their benches with fear in their eyes, devastated for a player who worked so hard to return from a ruptured Achilles tendon. “Get up.”
Indeed, Matthews did get up. He slowly walked off the floor without assistance. He sat on the bench, looked coach Rick Carlisle in the eyes and insisted that he was going to stay in the game.
An optimist could find other silver linings for the Mavs in addition to avoiding the worst-case scenario of losing a max-salary starter for the season. They gave Golden State a good run for most of the game despite sizzling shooting by the Splash Brothers. Dallas led by two points when a sore hamstring forced forward Chandler Parsons to leave the game for good a little more than four minutes into the third quarter. It was a four-point game with 7:19 remaining, but then Klay Thompson (39 points) put it out of reach with a 3-point flurry, and Stephen Curry (31 points) provided a dagger from the corner, too.
Nowitzki, however, is no optimist. He’s a realist, and the reality is that Dallas’ playoff hopes keep getting dented.
With their seventh loss in eight games, the Mavs (34-35) slipped under .500 for the first time since early November. Their lead over the Utah Jazz for the West’s final playoff spot is down to a half-game, the slimmest of margins.
And the schedule isn’t about to let up for the Mavs, who hope that Matthews and Parsons will be available for Sunday's critical meeting with the Portland Trail Blazers. Nine of their remaining 13 games are against teams who have either already punched their postseason tickets or are fighting to do so. They’ll see the Warriors again next week, after they get done with a home-and-home series against the Blazers, who can virtually eliminate the Mavs from the battle for the sixth seed if they can’t end their slide.
“It’s a tough position to be in,” Nowitzki said after his 24-point, 9-rebound, 4-assist, 3-block night went for naught. “We’re going to face some guys that we’re fighting for playoff spots here soon. It’s all big games. Our schedule is a beast. There’s no moral victories right now in March.”
There are no moral victories for the Mavs, and there haven’t been many actual wins lately for them, either.
However, there is a lot of confidence in the locker room that will change soon if they continue to play with the kind of effort that they have this week, when they snapped the Charlotte Hornets’ seven-game winning streak with a road win, lost by a point on the road to the Cleveland Cavaliers and competed with the Warriors.
“I’m thankful and proud of the way my team fought tonight,” Matthews said. “If we play like that for the rest of these 13 games, we beat 80 percent of this league.”
This wasn’t a defensive disaster by Dallas despite Golden State going off for 130 points. The Mavs tipped their cap to the best shooting team the NBA has ever seen after the Warriors went 22-of-38 from 3-point range, including an off-the-dribble corner 3 by Curry that somehow kissed off the glass before going in.
“It’s a loss where we played with great effort,” Carlisle said. “We needed to make a few more shots at key times. We needed to get a little luckier with them missing a few. With a team that good, things have got to go a certain way. You’ve got to make them go a certain way, but the stars didn’t quite align for us.”
If the stars align and the Mavs pull out enough wins down the stretch, their reward could very well be an eighth seed and first-round date with the Warriors. Given the circumstances they find themselves in, largely of their own fault, that’d be fine with them.
“If it gets to that point, all the pressure would be on them,” said Parsons, who scored 14 points and was plus-14 in his 22 minutes before being pulled from the game. “They’re supposed to be the best team ever. They’ve had an unbelievable season, but when the playoffs start, that’s a fresh season and a new season. Nothing else that happened prior to that really matters. They’re having a heck of a year. Steph’s literally changing the game before our eyes. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there if we find them in the playoffs.”
The Mavs have their hands full in the fight just to to get to that bridge.