First Impressions: Mavs Battle, Lose To OKC

The Mavs took on the team their coach labels 'the best in the West' and did so without a Hall-of-Fame-bound point guard, a starting center and the reigning NBA Sixth Man. Little wonder, then, that Carlisle referred to the available Mavs as 'troops' as the Mavs' 95-86 loss to OKC was a battle. A battle of attrition, a battle of physical play and a battle to control emotions.

"We had guys down,'' said Dirk Nowitzki, whose struggles while shooting just 2-of-15 for six points marked one of the difference-making performances in the game. "But we battled. We've just got to keep working.''

But three important Dallas Mavericks were unable to work. Starting point guard Jason Kidd is sidelined this week due to a back problem. Center Brendan Haywood was a pregame scratch due to his own lower-back soreness. And Lamar Odom, the erstwhile super-sub, wasn't at the American Airlines Center, having been sent home with a stomach virus.

Nevertheless, the Mavs who did play labored to overcome horrific shooting woes by coming back to tie the game at 85 with two minutes left. At that time, however, OKC mounted a run during which the Thunder outscored the home team 10-1 to close.

Which, of course, triggers your MavVirus. ... the questioning of Dirk and the concerns about whether this team will ever win again and the ADD that some of us suffer from giving the fact that Larry seems a distance memory ...

Anyway, the winner of the physical play battle was Serge Ibaka, who aggressively went after Dallas shooters and recorded a franchise-record 10 blocks. Wanna see 'em?

His presence contributed greatly to Dallas' 35.7-percent shooting, and by establishing a powerful presence from the jump, OKC benefitted all night from non-calls during under-the-basket clashes.

What do I mean by that? Serge and Perkins assertively bodied Mavs all night, and from the start. By the time this game came down to nut-cuttin' time, OKC had forced the refs into an establishment of what was to be allowed. And in the late-going of the fourth quarter, when the Mavs repeatedly did the right thing by trying to go to the basket, OKC did the right'er thing ... pounding the driver, blocking his shot, and then daring the refs to "change their strike zone in the ninth inning,'' so to speak.

Carlisle noted the "huge'' free-throw discrepancy (33 to 25 in favor of OKC, not that "huge'') but his frustration truly came out, but for a brief moment, when he kicked a loose ball that whizzed into the stands.

"I want to apologize to our franchise, Mark (Cuban), our fans," said Carlisle, who was ejected for his flash of anger. "The incident where the ball got kicked into the stands -- that can't happen. My intent was not to kick it into the stands. I was trying to kick it to the referee, but I'm not a very good kick. But, that can't happen. The officials made the right call on that one. That's a regrettable situation."

Immediately after the incident, Carlisle rushed to the baseline to apologize to any fans who may have been hit by the ball.

The fans are fine. It's the Mavs who are momentarily battered and who now much take stock in some of those extra "troops'' and how they performed. And I'll do the same:

Replacing Kidd: Roddy Beaubois - Roddy Beaubois got his fourth consecutive start as Jason Kidd missed once more with his strained calf. Considering the fact that he went 3-of-13 from the floor, it's easy to look at the boxscore and dismiss this as a very poor performance from Roddy B. While this is an accurate portrayal of his shooting touch, it does not capture the complete evaluation of his performance.

Like everyone else in the league, he had trouble consistently staying in front of Russell Westbrook, particularly when the pick-n-roll was in play, but when he was aggressive, he also proved that Westbrook returned the favor, being completely unable to stay in front of Beaubois.

The difference: Roddy B couldn't capitalize when he found himself open at the rim, missing no fewer than three open attempts either at the rim or within a couple feet of it.

Despite his poor shooting, Roddy B continued to show a newfound ability to play within the offense, playing under control and willing to create for others. The four assists he totaled belie the fact that his penetration created a fair amount of solid looks for teammates … only, they failed to convert open looks into baskets.

The final numbers: nine points on 3-of-13 shooting, four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Beaubois isn't Westbrook. But maybe he at least belongs on the same floor with him.

Replacing Odom: Brandan Wright - This was a revelation of sorts. Yi Jianlian and Brandan Wright were lined up for additional minutes, and got them. Yi was fine. Wright? To be blunt, he was more energetic and impactful that Odom has been for the bulk of this season.

To be more blunt, due to Dirk's struggles, Wright was easily the best power forward the Mavs put on the court.

He made four of the five shots he took, earned six free-throw attempts, making four of them, and added three blocks to his 12 points. You can point to the fact that he only had one rebound, though this fails to account for the misses he caused, leaving rebounds at the feet of teammates. He also appeared more than adequate for stretches protecting the interior of the zone with his mobility and ability to climb to meet almost any shot attempt.

Wright played some center, too, but the pivot of note is …

Replacing Haywood: Ian Mahinmi - Mahinmi stepped into his spot and got the first start of his career in his 111th regular-season game … to mixed results. He played 22:42 and managed to stay out of foul trouble, a genuine concern coming into the night; of the Mavs presently on the roster, he carries the highest foul-per-minute rate of all the Mavs. Mahinmi's stats in his limited time weren't terrible: six points, nine rebounds, one steal and two turnovers … essentially cancelling out the eight points and seven rebounds from Kendrick Perkins.

But the Mavs set up Ian to do more than that, especially on offense, where he fumbled away a few pick-and-roll chances. And he wasn't a factor on defense, appearing to be neutralized on the interior once Ibaka asserted himself.

We cannot say Odom was missed. We can say Haywood was missed.

Balance and depth is a hallmark of both these programs – one of them with the West's best record (the Thunder is 17-4), the other the defending champs and even with a loss still at 14-9 and leading the Southwest Division. OKC is carried by All-NBA standouts Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who scored 23 and 33, respectively. But their talent base is wide.

Dirk conceded that he doesn't have full confidence in his usual offensive repertoire and that his go-to moves right now are "predictable.'' Yet he had plenty of good looks among those 15 shots. Worth noting: He wasn't always covered by Ibaka, as has so often been the case in the past. OKC put a lesser defender on Dirk (sometimes even the sluggish Perkins), thus freeing up Serge to protect the rim. ... Hey ... "Serge Protector''! Clever! How have you OKC people not thought of this?!

Nowitzki, who in his three games back from his "Dirk-Out Workout'' has scored 10, 10 and six points, promises his knee feels stronger and healthier and that unlike earlier in the year, isn't swelling after games. He also pledges to continue his regimen of playing in the games, lifting on the off-days, and gym-ratting it at night by going into the AAC after hours for extra offensive work.

Amid some Mavs fans calling for everything from Dirk's shut-down to Dirk's head, I feel obliged to note that the true "experts'' -- Nowitzki and the Mavs medical staff -- are on the case. I would also point out that after 13 years, The UberMan has earned the trust of those who would doubt him.

Shut him down? Ship him out? For what purpose? With what goal? Twitter, like talk radio before it, serves as a megaphone and the most incendiary yellers snare attention. But the yellers don't know about Dirk what Dirk knows about himself.

So he'll keep gym-ratting it. With help, by the way, from mentor Holger Geschwindner, who is rolling into town from Germany.

Dirk in the basement, gym-ratting it with Holger. That's a good way to lead the "troops.'' And to bring at least one of the "guys who are down'' back up again.

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