DALLAS -- Other than some groans and a few fans shuffling for the exits, the sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center was almost silent with 4 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in Friday’s game.
LaMarcus Aldridge had just ferociously finished an alley-oop to give the Portland Trail Blazers, who trailed by 30 points in the first half, a six-point lead. It felt like a foregone conclusion that the Dallas Mavericks’ free fall would continue in soul-crushing fashion with a fourth consecutive loss that matched the franchise record for the biggest blown lead.
As the crowd sat in stunned silence during the ensuing timeout, challenges were delivered in the Mavs’ huddle. Leave everything on the floor and let the chips fall where they may.
Believe it or not, the Blazers didn’t get another bucket to fall the rest of the game. Dallas closed the game by scoring the final 11 points to pull out a desperately needed 103-98 victory.
“I thought we showed some great fight there in the fourth quarter to come back,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who publicly challenged the Mavs to raise their competitive level after Wednesday’s disastrous loss to the lottery-bound Denver Nuggets. “Just fight for each other, fight with each other. You’re going to lose some, but I like our chances if we’re out there playing together and fighting together.”
Maybe this wasn’t an ideal victory, but the Mavs aren’t exactly in a position to be whining about beauty points when they win.
The Mavs would certainly prefer not to have to scratch and claw down the stretch after opening with their most dominant quarter of the season, seizing that 30-point lead. But it’s no secret that Dallas is a defensively flawed team that tends to have trouble protecting big leads.
“If we want to be a playoff team, if we want to go deep into the playoffs, if you have that kind of lead against a team that can score in so many ways, you have to close it,” sixth man Vince Carter said. “You have to put them out. We know it, but I’m just glad to see everyone stay in it, not hang their heads. Not check out of the game and say, ‘It’s over, we lost,’ and find a way to get it done.”
Well, the Mavs might have to work a bit on that blown-lead deal.
Heck, the Mavs have lost five games this season in which they led by at least 17 points. It’s such a sensitive subject that it caused coach Rick Carlisle to curse during his postgame news conference -- and promptly tell his 9-year-old daughter, Abby, who was sitting off to the side with her mouth wide open in shock, that she didn’t hear that dirty word.
But at least the Mavs did the dirty work necessary to pull out a win they needed to maintain the slimmest of margins over the Memphis Grizzlies for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture.
How’s this for grit? The Mavs got nine consecutive stops to end the game. Their four buckets during that span were all off of drives or in the paint, including an off-the-glass, and-1, go-ahead bucket with 24 seconds remaining by backup point Devin Harris, who got the call for crunch time because of his ability to drive and defend. Carter’s offensive rebound with 17.4 seconds to go essentially sealed the win.
“If you talk about doing it the hard way,” Carlisle said, “there’s no harder way to do it than what we did tonight.”
Not that the Mavs expect it to get much easier. An angry, East-leading Indiana Pacers team, fresh off being blown out by the Houston Rockets and wanting revenge for losing to the Mavs before the All-Star break, will be in town Sunday. The Mavs’ three games after that are on the road, including visits to two teams above them in the West standings. And so goes the Mavs’ schedule, one of the toughest in the league in terms of opponents’ winning percentage the rest of the season.
“It’s going to be a character test,” Carlisle said. “It’s going to test our team resolve the next 19 games, but that’s good. If we’re not up to it, we don’t deserve to go to the playoffs.”
The Mavs’ playoff hopes might go down to the wire. With these Mavs, why should you expect anything other than a wild finish?