DALLAS -- The NBA is a no-excuses league. You play with who you've got. And after Thursday's loss to Oklahoma City followed by Saturday's implosion to the Orlando Magic, this assemblage of Dallas Mavericks is having trouble hanging for the full 48 against better teams.
The Mavs led the Magic 40-25 and then 50-34 but eventually lost it 117-107 at the American Airlines Center. After the score was tied 85-85 with 10:24 to go, the Magic, boosted by stellar 3-point shooting and dominance from Dwight Howard (23 points, 13 rebounds), rolled to a 23-2 run and eventually led 108-88.
Dallas dropped to 2-5 without Dirk Nowitzki, the club's leading scorer who also opens up the floor for others. The teams the Mavs have defeated in this stretch include the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers, who were down three players themselves, and the banged-up Portland Trail Blazers, who, most notably, played without All-Star guard Brandon Roy.
After the game, Mavs shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson denied that the Mavs just don't have enough firepower right now without Nowitzki and Caron Butler. Stevenson got off to a blistering start and scored 17 of his season-high 24 points in the first half.
"The first half we showed that we can beat them and run and do the things we're supposed to," Stevenson said. "I just think we get away from the things that we're doing. Defensive-wise, we don't do the things that we should do, and a team like that, shooting 3s that well, they're going to come back."
It was the same story against the Thunder. The Mavs led by as many as 10 in the first quarter and then by eight with 1:44 to go in the first half but went into halftime up just 55-51. Against the Magic, the Mavs led 50-34 with 3:04 to go until halftime. Orlando finished with a 17-7 kick and trailed by just six going into the locker room.
From there, the Magic kept whittling away and finally blew it open with a barrage of 3-pointers, finishing 14-of-32 and 8-of-17 in the second half. After missing 9 of their first 10 long-range attempts, the Magic dropped in 13 of 22.
Jason Terry, who had 16 points and a seaon-high nine assists, said the team should forget the players it doesn't have. What happened against the Magic, he said, is the same old song and dance.
"Our problems all year long have been with having a lead and then not being able to sustain it or put a team away. So if we're going to be the team we say we want to be, regardless of who's in uniform, you're going to have to do something about it. You can't just allow teams to keep coming back on you. It's been our problem all year long, and until we address it, we'll be sitting here with a sad face."
If there was any question as to Nowitzki's value to this team or that the season he was having before sustaining a sprained right knee on Dec. 27 was MVP-caliber, this seven-game stretch should answer it. The Mavs are 24-5 with him and 2-5 without him. They average 99.5 points a game with him and 92.3 without.
Coach Rick Carlisle will preach defense and rebounding until he's blue in the face. The Mavs had remained fairly steady on that end until their past two games in which the Thunder shot 47 percent and the Magic threw in 51.9 percent. The Mavs actually shot 53.9 percent, their highest percentage in a loss this season.
Dallas gave up at least 100 points for the first time since Dec. 13, when Milwaukee snapped its 12-game win streak. That's a span of 11 games, including the first six without Nowitzki and then Butler.
Where this one fell apart was much the same as the Thunder loss -- sloppiness. The Mavs committed 32 turnovers in the two games. The Magic turned 17 into 21 points for a 14-point edge in the category. Seven Mavs turnovers in third quarter led to 12 of those points as Orlando scored 29 in the period and trailed by just one, 81-80, while gaining steam heading into the fourth quarter.
Nowitzki's absence changes the entire flow of the Mavs' halfcourt sets. It becomes much more of a drive-and-dish situation, which can work well, as it did in the first half against OKC when the Mavs scored 32 points in the paint. But when defenses adjust, the Mavs' offense can become hurried and scattered, and, obviously, turnover-prone.
Nowitzki hopes he can play on Wednesday, when Dallas opens a four-game road trip. More will be known when the Mavs return to the practice court Monday. They've lost two games in the standings and are four back of the San Antonio Spurs, who play two more games before the Mavs get back into action. The division rivals meet Friday in San Antonio.
The Mavs hope Nowitzki is back in uniform.
"We've been right there in a lot of these games, and we just for some reason either run out of gas or just don't sustain the consistency we need to sustain throughout the whole game, and that's what really caught us," Mavs forward Shawn Marion said. It's a long season. It's still early. We are still one of the top teams in the league. We lost two of our main guys, and one of them will be coming back soon. At the same time, we are a very talented team. We just have to stay with it and stay positive."