DALLAS -- Without superstar Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup, it's becoming crystal clear with each game that the Dallas Mavericks have an identity crisis.
But that's probably to be expected when their 11-time All-Star is still recuperating from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. In other words, the Mavs are like Robin without Batman -- good enough to win some battles, but not good enough to beat the high-quality teams on a consistent basis without Nowitzki.
"Whenever your best player is out, you're going to struggle to have an identity," guard Derek Fisher said. "That's who the franchise is built around, that's who the team is recognized most by, is by No. 41.
"He makes everybody's game more efficient and better. As soon as he gets back on the court, I think the identity of the team can start to build around that."
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Coach Rick Carlisle said there is no official timetable for Nowitzki's return. But it can't come soon enough for the Mavs, who are 11-13 going into tonight's 7:30 game at American Airlines Center against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Mavs come into tonight's game after getting swept by Boston, Toronto and Minnesota on last week's three-game road trip. But they must find ways to stay afloat until Nowitzki and the team's medical staff are comfortable with the progress of his right knee.
"We have no idea when that will be, so until then it's just a matter of creating an identity each night," Fisher said. "And, for the most part in this league, that's getting it on the defensive end, playing a tough physical brand of basketball, getting after people, sharing the ball on the offensive end and giving yourself a chance to win.
"And so it goes back to not turning the basketball over, and giving yourself more opportunities at the basket. But from there, you're just fighting and scratching for everything you can get out there on the defensive end."
Rough road ahead
Following tonight's game against Philadelphia, the schedule the rest of this month for the Mavericks is as difficult as anybody's in the NBA.
From Thursday to Dec. 30, not only do the Mavs play the No. 2 team in the East in the Miami Heat, they also play three of the top four seeds in the West -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio (twice) and Memphis.
Despite the quality of the competition coming up, guard Derek Fisher sees a silver lining for the Mavericks.
"I don't know if it can get more brutal than two weeks in a row of three games in four days, with travel in between," Fisher said. "At least a few of these games are in this region.
"But at the end of the day everybody's in the NBA. And if you can control what you can control -- that's your team -- then you give yourself a chance to win against anybody."
Minding the turnovers
The last time they played the Sixers, the Mavs had a good shot at winning the game. But amazingly, they turned the ball over on six consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter and wound up losing 100-98.
"In that game the stretch that killed us was the six consecutive turnovers stretch in the fourth quarter," coach Rick Carlisle said. "Being able to create opportunities to make plays, and to be able to finish off those plays with simple passes and simple reads is going to be the on-going goal."
Ironically, turnovers were the Mavericks' top issue during the 0-3 road trip last week. They turned the ball over a season-high 28 times against Boston, 17 against Toronto and 20 against Minnesota.
Center Chris Kaman missed practice Monday to attend a funeral of a family member in Michigan. But he will be back in time to play in tonight's game against Philadelphia.
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760