DENVER -- It was a Finals flashback, except the whistles couldn't be blamed.
The Dallas Mavericks allowed a 13-point lead to disappear in the fourth quarter. That made the 121-120 loss to the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center especially painful to swallow in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Never mind the Mavs' 10-game winning streak that went poof in the Mile High air. The players in the visiting locker room were perturbed that their tendency to blow big leads bit them.
"If we want to be a championship team, we've got to close games," said center Tyson Chandler, whose 20-point, 11-rebound performance was wasted. "This is one game. This is one game we lost at the buzzer, but I'm talking future. We've got bigger goals and aspirations. This is one thing we've got to grow."
A few Mavs know better than most about the importance of closing games when a team has championship aspirations. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea will long be haunted by the 2006 NBA Finals, when the Miami Heat erased a 13-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 (the Mavs led the series 2-0).
No need to drum up the details, such as the ridiculous number of free throws Dwyane Wade shot in that quarter and the remainder of the series. Point being, that was the Finals turning point, and the city of Dallas went from planning a downtown parade to drowning its sorrow.
The Mavs, who are even with the Los Angeles Lakers at the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference, believe they're good enough to get back to the NBA's grand stage this season.
They've got the superstar, although Nowitzki has been a mere mortal since jamming his right wrist Monday. He had a pair of missed free throws in the final few minutes, putting the Nuggets in position to win on Arron Afflalo's contested 19-footer at the buzzer.
They've no doubt got the depth. The Mavs' bench has been magnificent of late, scoring 190 points in the past three games, including an NBA-season-high 72 against the Nuggets.
And they've got an ingredient that has never been in the mix during the Dirk era. With the long, athletic Chandler serving as an anchor, this is the best defensive team the Mavs have had in decades.
That's what made the fourth-quarter collapse so miserable. The Nuggets went scoreless for the first three minutes of the quarter before catching fire. They lit it up for 33 points in the final nine minutes, with Afflalo blowing up for 19 of his 24 points and Carmelo Anthony scoring 10 of his game-high 42.
Even worse, the Mavs let a nine-point lead evaporate in the final 2:51. A key stretch came when the Mavs missed three consecutive jumpers , and Anthony and Afflalo responded with back-to-back 3-pointers.
"It don't take but a second to change the momentum, especially in the high altitude up here," said Shawn Marion, who had 19 points but couldn't stop Afflalo down the stretch. "They hit a couple shots and you miss a few shots, it's a game that quick."
The Mavs' 9-3 record in games decided by three or fewer points doesn't give them any solace, even though it's the continuation of a trend (they were a league-best 9-2 in such games last season). The Mavs consider that a sign that they've let too many games get close.
"It's been biting us all season long," said Terry, whose 25-point performance marked the fourth consecutive game he's scored at least 20. "We've had a lead and not been able to put teams away."
That hasn't prevented the Mavs from positioning themselves nicely in the West playoff picture. But they've got much bigger things on their minds.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.