No lead safe, but Mavs hold on for win

DALLAS -- What do the Dallas Mavericks have in common with a yo-yo?

OK, so it's not the most creative analogy, but you get the point: up and down, up and down, up and down. The Mavs are having crazy issues with holding big leads. They might be the only team in the league that dreads blowing somebody out. They just can't seem to do it.

Wednesday night's 103-98 win over the Portland Trail Blazers was the latest in a line of four blown leads in a row at home, three against teams that are below .500. The Blazers fell behind by 17 only to whittle it down to nine in a matter of minutes and they had it tied 2:07 left to go in the game.

Caron Butler's team-high 23 points and Dirk Nowitzki's late-game heroics with 12 of his 21 points coming in the fourth quarter saved the day. The Mavs move to 4-1 on the season-long six-game homestand and 20-5 on the season, their second-best start in franchise history behind the 22-3 start in 2002-03.

It sounds awfully familiar: New Jersey came from 21 down to get within 5; Utah came from 25 back to tie and Milwaukee on Monday came all the way back from 20 to lead by nine late and win by four.

Jason Kidd tried to assess the situation with a touch of humor.

"Through the season you try to be consistent," he said. "We’re being consistent in the sense of getting big leads and giving up them. ... It’s not a bad thing to struggle with."

But seriously ...

"We relax a little bit, so we’re relaxing and we give our opponent a chance to come back," Kidd said. "In the last [four] games we’ve had big leads and we give them up. We have to figure out how to maintain our focus and keep that lead where it’s at, 17 or 20, keep it above 10. Right now we’re just struggling with that."

There's just no explanation as to why. They say it's not for a lack of effort or enthusiasm or the desire to beat somebody by 20.

The Mavs say they are determined to make a return to dominant defense, especially in the fourth quarter where they pulled out so many close games against quality competition during their 12-game streak. These days the defense gets worse as the game goes on.

At the half, the Mavs led 51-39. It was the fewest points the Mavs had given up in a first half this season and just one off their best for any half. Portland only crept above 40 percent shooting when the Mavs let down their guard and allowed a last-second alley-oop dunk by Nicolas Batum.

Then everything went to heck in the second half. Portland came in much like Milwaukee, weighing down the bottom of the NBA rankings in shooting percentage and scoring. So how does Portland go for 59 points after halftime two nights after the Bucks planted 60 on the Mavs? And how does Portland shoot 60.5 percent in the second half with Seagoville product LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 20 of his season-high 35 points in the fourth quarter?

"You know what, I think a lot of it has to do with schemes and rotations," center Tyson Chandler said. "We're getting mixed up a little bit, not understanding where our help is supposed to come from, and different plays we're over-helping and out of position and out of position for rebounds. It's just, I wouldn't say a lack of effort on the defensive end, but miscommunication. And that can be fixed."

The strange thing is all that was a strength of this team just a few weeks ago. They silenced crowds in Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Utah with lockdown defense. The only thing the Mavs are locking down in the past week or so is a lower and lower point differential.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle brought up the point differential statistic as something he keeps a close watch. But, he also said he was pleased with the way the team played throughout, other than a wonky first quarter in which the Mavs shot better than 50 percent but had just 17 points and led by three.

"In the first quarter we gave up 25 shots, which is an inordinate number because of all the offensive rebounds (six) and second chances, and that was the really disappointing part of the game, was our start. But, after that you just have to keep working."