First Impressions: Pacers 102, Mavs 89

"As a team, we've had some breakdowns,'' Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said previous to Wednesday's Dallas-at-Indiana game, taking a quick glance back. "Not coincidentally, good teams put you in a position to be broken down.'' … Apparently mediocre teams can do that, too, as we note in First Impressions of Pacers 102, Mavs 89:

For the sixth time in eight outings since standout Dirk Nowitzki was sidelined with a knee sprain, the Mavs fell short. But this wasn't the Thunder or the Magic or the Spurs. These breakdowns came against the Pacers.

Rick is right about the non-coincidence when it comes to OKC/Orlando/SA winning these sort of games.

But not insignifically, the Pacers are not one of those "good teams.''

Dallas hopes Nowitzki can return in time to play at archrival San Antonio on Friday. Sitting in the FS Southwest studios all afternoon, Ro Blackman and I got to watch the live (un-telecast) feed of his pregame on-court workout. There was no favoring of the knee on his practice shots. No grimacing. Funny exchanges with staffers Brad Davis and Casey Smith.

But then … as expected … he didn't go.

So here, the Mavs had to once again patchwork-quilt a rotation but couldn't avoid putting a negative mark on their otherwise stellar 12-3 record on the road and their 26-11 overall record. They failed here against an Indy team that was coming off the second night of a back-to-back – and that game, a Tuesday win at Philly, was one that snapped a Pacers' three-game losing streak and a nine-game road failure streak.

Coming in, Indy had now lost 13 of its last 18 and was 15-20 ... and yet in the Eastern Conference, is very much in the playoff race.

Dallas, now losers of three straight, doesn't have that luxury. In the Southwest Division and in the West, the Mavs are attempting to keep NBA-leading San Antonio within reach. At this moment – certainly without Dirk – Dallas isn't on the Spurs' level.

But usually, no matter what, they remain north of the Pacers' level, coming into the night having won five straight over Indiana and nine of the last 10.

Without Nowitzki? It can be argued that the Mavs ARE the Pacers.

Nowitzki, a nine-time All-Star and once again an MVP candidate, was hurt on Dec. 27 at Oklahoma City. At that time, Dallas was in the midst of winning 17 of its previous 18. But first Dirk went down, then two-time All-Star Caron Butler underwent knee surgery that finishes his season. Now Dallas awaits the return of Dirk and youngster Roddy Beaubois, a prospective starter who has missed all of his second NBA season with a broken foot.

But while Dallas waits … for an injury update, for a break, for a win … the Pacers performed. Brandon Rush scored 20, eight of them in a fourth quarter in which the Mavs faded. Danny Granger and Darren Collison, Indy's two budding stars, each scored 17. Rookie Paul George – who averages five points per – was good for 16.

Paul George? I'm double-checking the boxscore to see how many points John Ringo scored for ‘em.

The Mavs? Center Tyson Chandler scrapped (literally, twice with Pacers players) and totaled 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. And Jason Terry slid back out of the starting lineup and into the sixth-man role and maybe found his groove shooting 9-of-20 for 18 points.

The patchwork? Well, it was interesting, but overmatched. Terry, for instance, was in addition to being an effective shooter part of a Mavs group that was in many ways asked to do too much.

*Jet is having to be a creator … and what you get from that Jet is four turnovers.

*Alexis Ajinca was given a starting job for just the fourth time in his professional life. A worthwhile experiment because "he deserved a chance,'' as Rick said? Sure, but it was a dice-roll.

*Just-signed Sasha Pavlovic getting his passport one day and getting 16 minutes the next? Followill tweeted to me early in the game – as Sasha was hitting a basket and registering an assist, a steal and a couple of blocks – that I am wrong to call him "Sasha PavNovak,'' that he's superior to the Von Wafers and the Steve Novaks and such. We can hope tha as he begins his 10-day-contract tryout, he's got even more in him than this.

*Jason Kidd's boxscore-stuffing (4-of-7 from the arc, three rebounds, seven assists, three steals, two blocks and13 points) is going to wear him down … and the circumstance continues to oblige him to take shots he'd rather not take.

As he told me the other night, "I'm trying to find the 25-year-old in me.''

That's not all Dallas is in search of.

They need a guy back. Or two. They need an infusion, a boost. They needn't panic, but they need Dirk, and maybe more.

And without him, against good teams and teams not so good, they need performances nearer perfect.

"The key word is ‘precise,'' said Carlisle, who had been 9-3 in coaching against his former Pacers club. "We have to be really precise in everything we do.''

Or else? There will be breakdowns. And even teams like the Pacers will take advantage.

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