January 19, 2013

Mavericks look to build from dismal first half of the season

Turnaround requires being able to close out games, for one thing.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Disappointed. Frustrated. Irritated.

Any of the above adjectives best describes the state of mind of the Dallas Mavericks as they've reached the halfway point of the NBA's 82-game season with a dismal 17-24 record.

The Mavs are disappointed because they know their record would have been better had they not been robbed of their main player. On Oct. 19, forward Dirk Nowitzki underwent arthroscopic right knee surgery, which forced him to miss the season's first 27 games.

The Mavs are frustrated because as soon as they put out one fire, another one seemingly pops up. And they're irritated because they're just 1-8 in overtime games and because eight of their losses occurred by 20 or more points.

That includes three lopsided losses that happened at American Airlines Center -- 115-89 to the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 24, 106-85 to the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 28 and 111-86 to the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 30.

"Getting blown out a few times in front of our home fans was disappointing," center Elton Brand said. "That really hurt me, that really hurt our staff, and that really hurt the team."

The Mavs also were hurt because of their inability to close out games. Dallas lost its first seven overtime games this season -- an NBA record-tying 10 in a row dating to last season.

Two of those overtime losses were to powerful Oklahoma City. And one of those -- fittingly -- ended the season's first half with Friday's 117-114 loss to the Thunder.

But forward Vince Carter saw a silver lining in those gut-wrenching overtime losses.

"Through all of that, particularly the overtime losses, we've given ourselves a chance to get a win in overtime and lose games, but this team still stuck together," Carter said. "It's easy for a team to really go 15 individual ways just like that, and I'm just proud to say that we didn't do that, which I think helped us get back on track."

From Dec. 12 to Jan. 9, the Mavs lost 13 of 15 games to drop their record to 13-23. Five of those 13 losses came in overtime, leading aggravated owner Mark Cuban to say, "I wasn't sleeping very well, let's put it that way.

"But there's not a lot I could do. You've just got to trust and wait."

The Mavs waited and were 12-15 when Nowitzki returned in time for a Dec.23 game in San Antonio. But they are only 5-9 with Nowitzki, who is still a bit rusty.

"Considering where we were three weeks ago ... I think we've improved tremendously," Nowitzki said. "And we've still got another gear to go to, and we've got to keep pushing, watching film and watching the little things we can improve on."

For the Mavs, Delonte West, waived in preseason after double violations for conduct detrimental to the team, and Eddy Curry came and went in a flash. So did Troy Murphy, Derek Fisher and Chris Douglas-Roberts.

By the midway point, the Mavs stopped being a turnover machine and won four of their last five games. But 26 of the Mavs' final 41 games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if the postseason started today.

During the first half of the season, the Mavs were just 5-17 against teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today.

So if the Mavs have designs on extending their years of being in the playoffs to 13 seasons in a row, they'll have to step up their game.

"We've got to keep building this thing up," coach Rick Carlisle said. "And it gets harder as you win some games, and then when you start playing better opponents, it gets tougher and tougher."

But if the Mavs are to survive through this topsy-turvy season, they must rebound and defend better, protect the ball better and find a way to close out games.

"I think we've learned a lot through this roller-coaster season so far, which I think is going to help us mature quickly going into the second season because we've seen and been through so much," Carter said. "What more can you possibly go through?

"I'm sure there's some things, but I think we're growing, we're getting better, we're playing better consistent basketball and confident basketball at the same time."

Dwain Price, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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