Good effort, but no Dirk is big problem

DALLAS -- It's difficult to take much more away from the Dallas Mavericks' 99-95 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night other than the Mavs continue to play hard, but desperately need their leading scorer back in action.

So when will Dirk Nowitzki return to the lineup? The answer to that question should become clearer after Friday's practice when Nowitzki has scheduled a media briefing to discuss the progress of his sprained right knee. Nowitzki missed his sixth consecutive game Thursday, the longest stretch of games he's missed in his career due to injury. He injured the knee on Dec. 27 at Oklahoma City, and at the time he seemed to believe he'd be back sooner rather than later.

At Thursday morning's shootaround, Nowitzki was limited to riding a stationary bike, which might not bode well for a return Saturday night against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic to close out this three-game homestand.

Dallas fell to 2-4 without Nowitzki and snapped a two-game win streak built on wins over hapless Cleveland and banged-up Portland. The ailing Mavs, who are also learning to get on without forward Caron Butler, head into Saturday's matchup knowing only that it will be another test of their will to persevere during difficult stretches.

"I think we would like to have a full team, but the NBA is like that. It's a fine line. It only takes a quick tenth-of-a-second for someone to get hurt," Mavs guard Jason Kidd said. "But we feel we're deep enough and we've got enough guys in here to get wins. You can look at it so many different ways, but I think at the end of the day we'll be a better team with Dirk getting back and us continuing to play the way that we're playing."

They played solid, fluid basketball in the first half. The Mavs ran out to a 10-point lead early and, despite some setbacks in the second quarter, still managed to lead 55-51 at halftime. Dallas matched its second-highest point total for a first half (done eight other times), but with 1:18 left to go in the game the Mavs had put up just 31 second-half points.

A trio of 3-pointers by DeShawn Stevenson in those final 78 seconds made the game appear closer than it was down the stretch. This time, the Thunder turned up the heat in the fourth quarter, a reversal of the first two meetings in Oklahoma City when the Mavs flustered Kevin Durant (28 points) and his teammates on the offensive end.

"I really thought our undoing was not having a stronger first half," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "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. A lot of of those are four-point [swings] where you don't get two and they get two. That's where my thoughts are at."

If there is a silver lining to this stretch, it's that the Mavs still own the second-best record in the West Conference at 26-9. They've dropped only one game in the standings to the San Antonio Spurs during Nowitzki's absence. But these are fragile times, as Thursday night's game vividly revealed.

In the first half, the Mavs were moving effortlessly in the halfcourt offense, slicing through the lane and getting point-blank looks. They tallied 32 points in the paint in the first 24 minutes. In the last five games without Nowitzki, the Mavs had averaged just 30.8 points in the paint for a full game.

But that outlet dried up in the second half. Oklahoma City dominated that area, 28-10, in the final 24. The Mavs resorted to jump shots that were mostly contested and that didn't fall. Kidd missed all seven of his shot attempts, including four from 3-point land. Stevenson was 1-of-4 from 3-point land until hitting his trio when the game was on ice and Jason Terry was 0-for-2 from deep and hoisted 19 shots to score 16 points.

Shawn Marion carried things in the first half with 21 of his season-high 25 points. He was 10-of-12 from the floor in the opening half, but took just five shots the rest of the way and was effectively taken out of the offense.

"We miss Dirk the entire game," said center Tyson Chandler, who recorded his third consecutive double-double with 14 points and 18 rebounds, the second time he's gone for 18 against Oklahoma City. "When he's in the game he stretches the floor on both ends. He's a bigger body, and he plays great team defense."

The Magic play at Houston on Friday night, so at least the Mavs will have a night of rest before going up against one of the hotter teams in the league. Orlando won its seventh in a row Wednesday night and will be looking to avenge a loss to the Mavs in Orlando on Dec. 21, back when Nowitzki was in the lineup and the Mavs were rolling.

"Our emphasis was winning this game. We had them on their heels, and we didn't put them away when we should have," Marion said. "We had a 10-point lead and we should have pulled away and left them at the gate."

Against good teams, the Mavs, in their current state, realize their margin for error is razor slim. That won't change Saturday night, especially if Nowitzki is dressed in a suit for a seventh consecutive game.