"If you're looking for silver linings …'' said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose voice then trailing off before finally answering a media question about something or other. "It sucks.''
"It'' could be any number of woes for a Dallas team that started the season at a Spurs-like 24-5 but has now lost seven of nine and four straight with Nowitzki out. It could be how easily people like Tony Parker and DeJuan Blair cruised to their 18 points apiece, or how San Antonio toyed with the Mavs in building a 24-point lead, or how the Spurs made seven of their first eight baskets from inside the paint, or how the Dirk-less Mavs simply are absent any offensive weapons who can carry the club through tough challenges.
"It'' could also simply be having been slapped by the reality that Dallas might now want to re-examine its regular-season goals. Without Nowitzki, without Caron Butler (out for the year after knee surgery) and without Roddy Beaubois (hoping to soon return after having missed the whole season with a broken foot), there is an undeniable difference in the levels of competence for these two decade-long Southwest Division battlers. The Spurs are 34-6 and now have a seven-game edge over a Dallas team that, when healthy, is considered by most to be in a class with West powers the Spurs and Lakers.
But a "re-examination'' means worrying less about winning the conference or winning the division and more about trying to assemble a healthy roster for when the playoffs do roll around – while still retaining a top-tier seed, of course.
That's why Dallas is so careful regarding the health of Beaubois and Nowitzki, too, who said on Friday that he is "really close.''
"I'm actually really close," Nowitzki told a national TV audience. "For the first time this morning, I actually did some contact stuff. This whole time before, we did mostly non-contact stuff, mostly cardio and, so I'm getting closer. I don't know which game exactly. We've got a game (Saturday) and we've got a game Monday, so hopefully on this trip. …''
So, Saturday in Memphis. Or maybe Monday at Detroit. Or, heck, as Carlisle said: "He worked out hard today and we have to see how he feels. (Saturday) could be a possibility, but then again maybe not. We can't mess with that.''
Eventually, this will be less of a mess. Dirk's return is coming. And when it does, Dallas will have some relief for people like Shawn Marion, who was asked to be the Mavs' leading scorer here with 14 points. … and for Jason Terry, who continued his three-year long slump against a San Antonio team that seems to know how to stop him as he shot just 3-of-14 … and for Jason Kidd, who was mercifully allowed to play just 27 minutes on Friday, a nod toward where this game was heading … and for Tyson Chandler, who was ill enough to miss shootaround but gutted it out for the tip because …
"I've got to,'' he said.
Who can blame them, really, when they know about themselves what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about them before the game?
"If you're going to pick somebody, I still think the Lakers are the best team (in the West), once it's all said and done," Popovich said. "(But) before Dirk got hurt, I thought (the Mavericks) were real close to them."
In reality, of course, the Spurs are the best in the West. They are the healthiest – no small part of their success … and then have enough quality to win games like this going away while Tim Duncan (16 points, 12 boards) and Parker can rest up for the whole fourth quarter and while Manu Ginobili can score just 11.
The Mavs were left with an empty consolation prize, an examination of young players in what was essentially an exhibition game for kids Alexis Ajinca (the 7-1 Frenchman who started and seemed lost) and rookie first-rounder Dominique Jones, who in mop-up duty scored 13 points in 13 minutes.
A silver lining, coach?
"A lot of things went wrong,'' Carlisle said. "There's not much more to say than that.''