NEW ORLEANS -- Frustrated after watching his team bungle a 10-point bulge heading into the fourth quarter and then spit up a seven-point lead with 1:13 to go courtesy of multiple errors, Rick Carlisle pulled no punches, and perhaps even dropped one on his club below the belt.
"Yeah," the coach reiterated, "soft."
That description touched a nerve in an otherwise quiet Mavs locker room, which was likely Carlisle's intent after a second loss in three games in which Dallas blew double-digit second-half leads in both.
"I wouldn't go that far," said center Tyson Chandler, who returned from a sprained right ankle and recorded his 17th double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. His only blemish was clanking two free throws with 17.7 seconds left that kept the Mavs' margin at two, 92-90.
"Who said that?" Terry said, scoffing at the accusation after he had an off night -- rare for him of late -- with 10 points. "I'm not soft, not me. I don't know where that comes from, but we ain't soft. We have to see how he meant soft in that aspect, but I know he wasn't talking to me personally or any of my teammates because I don't think none of these guys are soft."
Being soft hasn't been an issue all year. The Mavs have built their 46-18 record off tough wins -- such as at Boston, twice at Oklahoma City, at Miami and at San Antonio -- by being the aggressor and taking control with physical, stifling team defense and offensive execution late in those games. Recurring blown leads are irritating and perplexing, but "soft" is quite another claim.
"I think we've just got to be tougher," Carlisle said quietly. "Got to be tougher."
What chafed Carlisle was a rebounding total that had the Mavs on the wrong end, 44-31, and a devastating 24-11 in the second half that included no offensive boards, meaning no second possessions, not a single tip-in or tip-out. While Chandler secured 13 boards, the other nine that played totaled 18.
Carlisle didn't think his team played tough enough in a third highly physical matchup with the Hornets every time it extended the lead -- to 70-60 after three quarters, to 76-65 with 8:22 to play, to 82-73 with 4:35 to go, to 89-81 with 2:26 left and finally to 92-85 with 1:13 to go.
Marco Belinelli, who swished a high-arching half-court heave at the halftime buzzer, dropped an off-balance 3-pointer with 50.2 seconds to play to cut it to 92-88. Then he tipped away a Dirk Nowitzki pass for a turnover that led to an Emeka Okafor chip shot and foul. When he missed the free throw and Chandler secured the ball and was fouled, it seemed that was all she wrote.
Chandler -- 8-of-10 at the free throw line to that point -- missed them both to set up Jarrett Jack's final three free throws thanks to an uncharacteristic foul by Jason Kidd behind the arc with 8.4 seconds to play.
"When you have a seven-point lead with 1:13 to go, you've got to finish it off by making the plays," Carlisle said. "Credit them for making plays, and we did not."
The loss was just the third in the past 23 games -- but second in three games -- and it further tightens the race with the Los Angeles Lakers, who are in Dallas on Saturday night, for the second seed in the Western Conference. All three losses have been by one point and all were decided on the final play. Any loss thrown into that much winning could come under undue scrutiny. But the pattern in those losses is also somewhat disturbing. All were blown double-digit leads in the second half.
If there is any concern on behalf of the players, they aren't saying so publicly. Still, there are kinks to be worked out with 18 games remaining in the regular season.
More than the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavs at this late date are a bit of a work in progress. They've added three players to the rotation recently in Peja Stojakovic, who missed Wednesday's game with a stiff neck; Roddy Beaubois, who is trying to remain patient after logging just 13 minutes after a seven-point start in the first five minutes; and Corey Brewer, who didn't sniff the court even during defensive possessions in crunch time.
The rotation becomes even more uncertain now with Stojakovic's situation and the rib injury Shawn Marion sustained in the third quarter as the Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire-led New York Knicks come to town for a nationally televised game tonight.
Being soft, however, just wasn't one of the issues the Mavs figured they faced.
"The last two weeks or whatever we've lost three games by one point, so that really stings," Nowitzki said. "But hey, I guess we did a nice job in the other 18 or 19 closing out and winning. Sometimes you're going to get the short end of the stick."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.