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Mavericks 'proud' despite early playoff exit

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Thunder finish off Mavs in chippy battle (1:39)

Russell Westbrook drops 36 points and Kevin Durant adds 33 as the Thunder muscle past the Mavericks 118-104 and win the series in five games. (1:39)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- For most of Dirk Nowitzki's career, a first-round exit in the playoffs qualified as a major disappointment for the Dallas Mavericks. This season is different.

Nowitzki held his head high as he grabbed the microphone and leaned back in his chair for his final postgame media conference of the season. Given the circumstances, Nowitzki took comfort in the fact that this flawed, injury-ravaged Mavs team fought to the merciful end.

The Mavs overachieved simply to make the playoffs. They pulled off a minor miracle by actually winning a game against the much deeper, much more talented Oklahoma City Thunder. Nowitzki can live with exiting in five games, with the Mavs having never led in any of their losses, all of which were by double figures.

“We battled hard,” Nowitzki said after scoring 24 points in 35 exhausting minutes during Monday’s season-ending 118-104 loss. “We battled unbelievably hard even to get to the sixth seed, winning six in a row when everybody thought we were dead. So I’m proud of the guys. We gave it all we had.”

Dallas ends the season with its dignity intact, if not many of its body parts.

Coach Rick Carlisle guaranteed on Sunday that the Thunder wouldn’t get a free pass to the second round, that the Mavs would fight to the end. The Mavs made good on that promise, trailing by as few as three points in the fourth quarter before Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant slammed the door.

“Metaphorically, we emptied our chamber in five games,” Carlisle said.

The Mavs’ trainer’s room, on the other hand, was standing room only.

Forward Chandler Parsons' season ended in March due to surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee. Point guard Deron Williams played a total of only 89 seconds in the last three games due to a sports hernia that’s been bothering him for about two months. Forward/center David Lee didn’t play in three games this series due to a partial tear in the plantar fascia in his right foot. And center Salah Mejri sat out the series finale due to a sprained right hip, failing to talk Carlisle into overruling athletic trainer Casey Smith’s call that he couldn’t play.

“That’s the kind of spirit we have on this club,” Carlisle said. “Mavs Nation has got to be extremely proud of this team. Getting in would have seemed like a long shot with nine games to go, but they found a way. And I loved the way we competed. I wish we would have had our full contingent of guys.”

Heck, it would have been nice if most of the Mavs who were available were healthy. Nowitzki limped the rest of the series after suffering a bone bruise in his right knee in the opening seconds of Game 2. Guard J.J. Barea couldn’t accelerate after aggravating his groin strain in the series opener. Center Zaza Pachulia’s Achilles tendon has given him trouble since midseason. Guard Devin Harris needs surgery on his left thumb and left foot.

Owner Mark Cuban cited better luck with health as the biggest factor for the Mavs to be a threat to do playoff damage next season. He’s fooling himself if he truly believes that. The reality is the Mavs need to make some significant upgrades during their annual roster remodeling to have realistic hope of winning a playoff series for the first time since their 2011 title run.

There will be plenty of time to prepare for free agency. Monday night was a time to tip the cap to a team that was extraordinarily gutty, if not very good.

“Any Mavericks player who walks on the court has just laid it all out,” Cuban said. “There’s nobody that we look at and say, ‘Well, he could have played harder.’ I mean, blood, sweat and tears, this is a gutty group that I’m proud of.”