Mavs struggling to find finishing touch
Poor execution down the stretch has become a disturbing trend for defending champs
The first development was a good thing; the second, not so much, eliciting all manner of exasperation from the Mavericks after the 95-91 defeat in a high-intensity matchup that sure would be fun viewing in a couple of months.
"When you put yourself in a situation like this to win the game, you're supposed to win this [expletive]," Shawn Marion said. "That's all I really got to say."
The Mavs, the coolest cats in the NBA last season under late-game duress -- as the young Thunder can attest -- are having all manner of malfunction this season. They'll kick themselves all the way across the Red River, too, because they put together their best all-around effort in some time and again seemed to have a mental headlock on their aspiring foes.
But Dallas couldn't close out a 91-87 lead with 2:24 to play. Jason Terry, who has been calling recently for the late-game rock, couldn't get it done twice with Dallas down one and then two points, and Dirk Nowitzki, who threw in four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and three in a row late, never got the chance to win the thing.
"Yeah, we should have won the game," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "The last exchange of plays is just, you know ..."
Lacking the words after losing for the sixth time in eight games, Carlisle didn't bother finishing.
The Thunder took a 92-91 lead on two free throws awarded to forward Serge Ibaka. Ian Mahinmi thought he had all-ball on the block attempt but got hit with his sixth foul -- a call that left Carlisle and his players dumbfounded, yet hardly speechless -- and Ibaka made both free throws.
What happened next would seem highly unusual for the defending cardiac champs if it wasn't happening so often.
After the Ibaka free throws, the Mavs came down looking to regain the lead.
We haven't really been sharp on execution at the end of ballgames, and that's hurt us, but, again, it's not a big concern.” -- Mavs guard Jason Terry
"[Russell] Westbrook hit the ball out of my hands, and I had to recover and the shot clock was really down," said Nowitzki, who then got the ball over to Terry. "And he had to make something out of really nothing."
Terry's 16-foot jumper never made it all the way over center Kendrick Perkins, and the shot-clock buzzer sounded. Kevin Durant was fouled and missed the first for a two-point lead instead of three. Dallas called timeout to devise a way to either tie it or win it with 13.9 seconds to go.
Vince Carter checked into the game, and surely the Thunder had him marked, remembering the 3-pointer he dropped with three seconds to go in the December meeting here, only to be shot down by Durant's game-winning 3 at the buzzer.
Carter was not involved in this last-possession play that didn't work nearly as well.
"We were trying to get Jet and Dirk involved in a two-man game," Jason Kidd said. "I was trying to get Westbrook out of the play, they switched, and then I saw Jet coming towards me and I just tried to figure if I was in bounds or out of bounds."
Terry dribbled around the edge and cut toward the basket along the baseline, but Kidd was standing there. Terry ran out of real estate and dumped it to Kidd.
"That was definitely not the plan," Terry said.
Kidd looked like Terry had just tossed him a lit cannonball. Nearly falling out of bounds, Kidd quickly tossed the hot potato back to Terry, who had no choice but to heave a high-arching baseline shot over Perkins. It never really had a chance.
"Yeah, very odd play," Carlisle said. "Kidd broke wide open under the basket, but Jet didn't see him because Perkins was there; just was a really unusual play. But it never should have come to that."
The Mavs led 52-45 at halftime, and held Durant and Westbrook to a combined 46 points on 12-of-38 shooting while holding the Thunder to just 38.2 percent shooting. OKC's 29-10 scoring advantage at the free throw line (33-10 in attempts) made the difference.
"You hold them to 38 percent shooting on the floor, that's a game you've got to have," Nowitzki said. "It's tough. We won the championship last year because we were the best team to execute down the stretch, getting what we want and getting stops, and this year so far, we just don't have it."
Four of the six losses in this season-worst stretch have come by five or fewer points. The Mavs' largest deficit, a nine-point loss to Memphis, came when Nowitzki had to leave for the night with a bad back after just 10 minutes.
The team that started this swoon, the New York Knicks, won by seven, and it was a three-point game with 1:07 to go. Tyson Chandler and Jeremy Lin, a combo that killed Dallas in the Big Apple, were in Big D watching this one Monday night in preparation for Tuesday night's game.
Chandler will get his championship ring, hug his former teammates, coach and owner, and then go about trying to add to the Mavs' current misery.
"We have to bounce back in a big way. We're optimistic, man, I think we can get it done," Terry said. "We haven't really been sharp on execution at the end of ballgames, and that's hurt us, but, again, it's not a big concern."
And then Terry stared straight ahead and puffed his chest.
"I ask for the ball in that situation," Terry said, "and, again, if I get another opportunity, I'm betting on myself to win."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.