LOS ANGELES -- At some point this has to change.
Either the Dallas Mavericks (23-17) are going to figure out a way to close games with their defense, or they’re going to continue suffering excruciating losses after holding double-digit leads and, possibly, miss out on the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.
For the fourth time this season, the Mavs held a 17-plus point lead and failed to win (the other losses were against the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors). Once or twice might be an aberration, but at this point the blown leads are beginning to creep into Dallas’ psyche.
“I was thinking we might be the only team trying to find a way to lose this one,” Dirk Nowitzki said after the Mavs 129-127 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. “We were up, I don’t know, 15 or 16. We have to find a way to win it. We have to get a couple stops here and there. I have to make one or two shots, and there’s no way we should lose this game.”
With 4:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, reserve big man Brandan Wright -- being fronted on a mismatch by Jamal Crawford -- caught a lob pass from Vince Carter, finished the layup and was struck in the face by Crawford.
As blood oozed from his lip, Wright stepped to the free throw line and completed the and-1. The three-point play stretched Dallas’ lead to a game-high 17 points, 123-106, which seemed improbable after the Mavs trailed by nearly double digits for a majority of the first three frames.
Yet instead of serving as the spark that would propel the Mavs to victory, Wright’s basket essentially functioned as the turning point for the Clippers. Over the final 4:35, Los Angeles outscored Dallas 23-4. Shawn Marion said it was “inexcusable” that the Mavs let the Clippers come back from 17 down.
“We have to get some stops,” Nowitzki said. “We can’t give up 3s, especially when they’re down that many. We knew the only way they could come back was with 3s, and they hit three or four in the last couple minutes.”
Even with their massive collapse rapidly unfolding, the Mavs had a handful of opportunities to seal the game down the stretch -- none more important than on the Clippers’ game-winning possession. Following a missed 16-foot step-back jumper by Nowitzki, the Clippers -- trailing 127-126 -- called a timeout and set up a game-winning shot with 20 seconds remaining.
Crawford, who had 16 points on just 4-of-13 shooting, isolated Marion at the top of the key, drove right and attacked the heart of Dallas’ defense. Marion, unquestionably the Mavs’ best one-on-one defender, stuck with Crawford, but bit on a pump fake and was called for a controversial foul. Dallas’ bench erupted in disagreement, and Marion, in particular, was visibly upset.
“I played great defense on him at the time,” Marion said. “[The refs] felt like they needed to make the call, and it is what it is.”
Nowitzki, meanwhile, was a bit more brash in his assessment of the play.
“I actually don’t think ’Trix fouled Crawford on that play,” Nowitzki said. “I think he lost the ball and flailed his arms, and the refs bailed him out. So that was a tough play, but it should never have come down to that.”
While some might cite the questionable call as a key reason the Mavs lost, Dallas actually has been on the receiving end of two beneficial calls recently that the NBA publicly retracted. The postgame locker-room theme was that maybe their luck had caught up to them.
Regardless, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle isn’t looking to make any excuses for his team's inability to win Wednesday's game.
“We couldn’t get stops and that was the reason we lost,” Carlisle said. “If you’re going to pin all your hopes on shot-making in this league, you’re not going to win nearly as many games as you can if you have the ability to get stops.”
At basically the midway point of the season, the Mavs have yet to establish themselves as an above-average defensive team.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, the Mavericks had been giving up 103.1 points per 100 possessions since Christmas -- an encouraging number that was good for the 12th-best mark in the league over that span. Tonight’s outing, though, dropped the Mavs’ defensive efficiency to 105.4 (19th during that stretch), and 22nd overall for the season.
With the Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets nipping at their heels for one of the West's final playoff spots, the Mavericks need to address their defensive struggles, and soon. Whether it’s by making tactical adjustments or switching up the rotation, the Mavs know they can’t build a sustainable winning formula with a below-average defense.
“We got the lead by getting stops,” Carlisle said, “and then we lost it with mental mistakes and poor defense down the stretch.
“We made some really bad mental mistakes and gave them a chance, and they took advantage of it.”