Moral victory? It's a painful loss for Mavs

SAN ANTONIO -- Hey, this was a heck of a lot better than the Mavericks’ last trip to the AT&T Center.

It just wasn’t good enough for a Dallas team desperate for wins.

At least the Mavs put up a fight in this meeting against the San Antonio Spurs, something that hadn’t happened the previous three times the Interstate 35 rivals ran into each other this season. Their Dec. 23 visit to San Antonio was especially embarrassing, with the Spurs spanking the Mavs by 38 points in Dirk Nowitzki’s season debut.

This one went down to the wire. The Mavs made a furious comeback, fighting back from an eight-point deficit with 2:37 to go, but it fell just short when Vince Carter didn’t get the shooter’s roll on the final possession.

Frankly, the 92-91 loss Thursday night didn’t feel any better than a blowout. This might even have been more painful for the Mavs.

“That’s kind of been the motto of our year,” Nowitzki said after his 21-point, 11-rebound performance. “We are right there but just cannot get over the hump.”

Progress alone won’t get the Mavs in the playoffs. The dramatic improvement Dallas has made recently will feel empty if its vacation begins April 18.

That’s why there was such a somber mood in the Mavs’ locker room. They’re well aware of their spot in the West standings -- 10th, three games out of eighth -- and what they have to do to climb into the playoff picture. They can’t afford to let any opportunities slip away.

No team in NBA history has ever qualified for the playoffs because of moral victories. And a franchise that has qualified for a dozen consecutive postseasons doesn’t salvage any joy from a competitive loss to the West’s best team.

“We don’t accept this loss as a moral victory,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “That’s just not what we’re about and that’s not where we’re at.”

There are legitimate reasons to be encouraged by the Mavs. This loss snapped a season-best-matching four-game winning streak, including three straight road wins.

But there’s also the reality that the Mavs have to be remarkable for the rest of the regular season to get the honor of matching up with the Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder -- two teams the Mavs have failed to beat this season -- in the first round of the playoffs.

Although San Antonio was missing All-Star point guard Tony Parker, the Mavs at least left the AT&T Center this time confident that they can compete with the Spurs. That, however, is a frustrating feeling after a loss.

Carter, the 36-year-old sixth man who was spectacular on the rest of the road trip, took the loss especially hard. He was one of the last ones to leave the locker room, sitting at his stall and staring straight ahead for several minutes before getting in the shower.

Carlisle had the confidence to call a play for Carter when the Mavs had the ball out of bounds with 5.6 seconds remaining. Carter felt like he failed to reward that confidence.

The Spurs switched on the Carter-Brandan Wright pick-and-roll, putting power forward Tiago Splitter on Carter at the top of the arc. Carter created some separation and launched a 26-footer he thought was going to splash through the net to seal what would have been a huge win for the Mavs.

“Damn right, looked good and felt good,” Carter said about the 3-pointer that hit the front rim. “If I’m put in that position, I feel like I’ve got to make the shot. It never sits well with me, regardless if it was a good shot or not. We’re playing for so much, so I needed it to go in, plain and simple.”

The result wasn’t a moral victory. It was just the Mavs’ 34th loss of the season, putting them perilously close to being in the painful position of watching the playoffs from the couch.