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Monday, February 1, 2010
Updated: February 2, 12:31 PM ET
Mavs closer to lottery than first place

By Tim MacMahon

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Dallas Mavericks, a veteran team that prides itself on poise, insist that it's premature to panic.

Serious concern, however, is certainly appropriate after their first three-game losing streak of the season.

There was cause for concern even before the Mavs extended their skid with a 104-92 loss Monday night to the Utah Jazz at Energy Solutions Arena. The Mavericks are 8-9 since New Year's Eve, leaving them clinging to third place in the West, a half-game above a Utah team that clinched the season series with a dominant fourth quarter.

"You've got to be worried," said Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 28 points but didn't even attempt a field goal during the fourth-quarter failure. "We haven't really played well for like a month or whatever. We lost some games that we should have won.

Mavs V. Jazz
Utah's Andrei Kirilenko throws down an uncontested dunk as Drew Gooden (90) and Dirk Nowitzki keep their distance.

"But hey, you can't hang your head. This is February now. We've got to keep working. We've got a veteran team, so we've got to stay positive and stay together and make something happen."

The Mavs (30-18) ought to have a sense of urgency. They're 6½ games back, so they can forget about challenging the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference's top seed. But they're only four games away from slipping into the lottery, as inconceivable as that seems for a franchise that has nine consecutive 50-win seasons.

The way this game ended was eerily similar to last week's road loss in Phoenix, where the losing streak started. The Mavs managed to score only 16 points in the fourth quarter in each of the two games.

The Mavericks believe they have two of the league's elite crunch-time scorers in Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Neither had a field goal in the fourth quarter against the Suns. Neither had a field goal in the fourth quarter against the Jazz, with Andrei Kirilenko's active, long limbs limiting Nowitzki's touches and sparking several fast breaks.

The Jazz, who have won six in a row, made the Mavs look old with the game on the line. They forced seven turnovers in the fourth quarter, leading to 11 of their 27 points. They doubled the Mavs' rebounding total in the final frame. All-Star point guard Deron Williams, who finished with 18 points and 15 assists, didn't even have to be dominant down the stretch as the Jazz slammed the door on the Mavs, who waved the white towel by yanking all the starters with more than two minutes remaining.

Nowitzki and Terry accepted responsibility for the Mavs' recent late-game woes, but that's not even the most worrisome issue Dallas has dealt with during its month-plus of mediocrity.

The Mavs' defense has been miserable, allowing opponents to shoot 48.4 percent from the floor during January. The Jazz's shooting percentage Monday night: 49.4 percent.

The Mavs' formula for contending this season was based on playing much better defense than they did last season -- an area addressed with the offseason acquisition of Shawn Marion -- and counting on their proven veteran core to finish games.

That worked wonderfully for the first two months of the season. We'll see whether that was fool's gold or if the Mavs can revert to form.

"It's been tough, man," said Terry, who scored 19 points but missed his final six field goal attempts. "This is what happens. This defines your team. How can you withstand adversity? In the past, we've been great. We've been able to stay together. That's going to be the telltale sign of how far we go this season."

Added coach Rick Carlisle: "We've been here before. We had to fight through a few of these last year. We'll be back."

Better hurry. The rest of the West won't wait.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.