This flaw manifested itself once again Monday night in a 100-94 loss to the Utah Jazz. Dallas held a six-point lead with 6:20 remaining in the fourth quarter only to surrender it for good amid a 13-0 run by the Jazz.
"It's difficult," Mavs forward Elton Brand said. "We're right there. We're playing much better. We've just got to close out games. That's our next step."
A flurry of late-game defensive lapses, bad shots and turnovers kept Dallas from taking that step yet again. The Mavericks had no answer in particular for Jazz sixth man Gordon Hayward, who finished with 27 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots off the bench. Hayward keyed big Utah runs in both hands and kept the Dallas defense off-balance at key times.
It started when he hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half to help even it 53-53 at halftime. Hayward continued his assault in the fourth quarter, intercepting a pass by Dirk Nowitzki and scoring the go-ahead layup during the Jazz's decisive run. Hayward followed that with a 3-pointer to cap the run and put Utah ahead 93-86 with 2:19 left.
"Hayward had a great game," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He hurt us all night long. He's a very athletic player. He's very skilled and understands how to play. He got us time and time again."
Alec Burks and Paul Millsap also played a part in burning the Mavs late. Burks scored eight of his season-high 13 points in the fourth quarter, and Millsap alternated big defensive plays with crtical baskets to keep Dallas from shutting down the Jazz rally.
Another late collapse wiped out solid efforts from several Dallas post players. Nowitzki matched his season high with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Chris Kaman also sparked the team with 14 points -- all in the first half -- and nine rebounds. Brand chipped in 11 points and nine boards.
Nowitzki felt as if the team couldn't stay composed when the game turned physical as the fourth quarter wore on.
"You've got to at least make a play and get a shot up," Nowitzki said. "It seems like it's always coming back to the same things -- making mental mistakes. Defensively, I thought we battled. We battled one of the most physical teams on the board. We were right there there all night and, down the stretch, there's always something missing unfortunately."
Carlisle felt like the referees allowed Utah to get a little too physical down the stretch, and it played a big role in sapping momentum from the Mavericks.
"They went to thugging it out," Carlisle said. "That's where the game turned. That's when the officiating went their way. They started to get calls. We weren't able to get the whistles."
The Mavericks wove a familiar tale of missed chances. Writing a new chapter will not be possible until they learn how to eliminate mental mistakes late in games and learn how to close games out.
"That separates the good teams or the great teams from the bad teams," Nowitzki said. "They find ways to win ugly games with a couple of big plays down the stretch."