For one night, at least, they gave hope.They ran on young legs that were supposed to have lost the way. They showed, as coach Rick Carlisle said, that they have character.Three nights after turning in one of their most unsightly performances in 13 years, losing by 33 points, the Dallas Mavericks came back Wednesday and beat the same team, the Houston Rockets.Go figure.The Mavericks begin a busy and frigid road trip Friday night at Detroit. Games at Minnesota and Milwaukee follow.All three are winnable. All three, based upon painful, season-long observation, could easily be lost.So what are they playing for here, exactly? The pride? The beards? The cuddly owner?In the short-attention-span NBA, motivations often are overrated. The 2010-11 Lakers were embarrassed by the Mavericks in a four-game playoff sweep. Twelve months later, Oklahoma City did the honors, dismissing the Lakers in five games.Money and motivation are good. Having an All-Star point guard is better.Thus, here the Mavericks sit. All bearded up and nowhere to go. Their 12-year playoff string appears over.As Dirk Nowitzki said in the locker room after Wednesday’s win, “Every game for us now is big. We can’t afford to lose.”Here’s a humbling tap of the brakes:Even if, by prayer or wild fortune, Carlisle’s team was able to win all 22 remaining games, the Mavericks would still likely be fighting for only the conference’s No. 7 or No. 8 seeds.For the legions of Mavericks Fans for Life, the consolation prize will have to be those scattered moments like the kind you saw Wednesday night. This team has played entertaining basketball — playing 48 minutes on the same night has been the problem.On some nights O.J. Mayo has buoyed the hopes of the future. On other nights, the Mavericks have made you miss Jason Kidd, who turns 40 in two weeks.Anybody have an idea whether rookies Bernard James or Jae Crowder can emerge as building blocks on a future Mavericks playoff team? I sure don’t.Amid the team’s hairy pursuit of the postseason of late, scattered positives have emerged. Nowitzki, for one, his right knee healthy, again is capable of playing like the old Dirk.Likewise, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion have performed like the veteran leaders that they are.But what happens from here? Trade Carter? Hope Mayo sticks around? Hope Marion doesn’t?It’s complicated. But let’s not turn this into another Tyson Chandler discussion.The awful truth is that Dirk isn’t getting any younger, and now two seasons will have been wasted.Waiting by the telephone for free agents to call hasn’t worked. And as we’ve seen, trading for Dwight Howards and James Hardens is futile when your roster is bereft of attractive players to trade.The Mavericks’ best trade commodities? Expiring contracts.Ah, salary cap voodoo. But that’s what got the franchise in this current mess in the first place.Owner Mark Cuban has cleared the cap space and left the porch light on. There’s got to be some bedrock NBA star out there who wants to play Batman to Nowitzki’s Robin.Or maybe not.NBA teams still shed salaries. But the good teams tend to keep their bedrock players.The rebuilding Mavericks shouldn’t expect Chris Paul to be available, therefore, but the likes of a Caron Butler. The Lakers’ Howard? Uh, no.Compared to the task ahead, building the team into the champions they became was relatively easy. They had a young Dirk, for openers.Now they have heart. They have cap space. And they have Cuban and Donnie Nelson waiting by the telephone.Not even the prospects of hitting the NBA lottery seem reachable. In their current state, 27-33 and with the league’s 12th–worst record, the NBA formula says that the Mavericks would have a 0.7 percent chance of winning the No. 1 lottery pick.Some season.In 20 games, at least, they’ll get to shave.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton