First Impressions: Mavs 106, Spurs 99
With time, as the night creeps on, the faintest ember of light eventually begins to breach the horizon, slowly clawing to gain foothold on the sky above. For the Dallas Mavericks, those first breaths of light attempting to drain the darkness came in the form of the two teams with the worst records in the Eastern Conference (the Wiz and the league-worst Charlotte), lending to the faintest of hopes.
At the edge of still-holding night came the silver and black of the San Antonio Spurs. The cross-state rivals arrived fresh from knocking off the best-in-the-West Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night, providing Dallas with their first chance to build upon any confidence gained from back-to-back victories.
Behind an endless assault of energy and hustle, Dallas dug their fingers in and pried wide that sliver of light hugging the horizon. Dirk Nowitzki poured in a game-high 27 points. Jason Terry scored eight of his 17 in the fourth quarter, while Roddy Beaubois got the start at shooting guard and tied a career high with eight rebounds, not to mention 16 points.
Playing without Shawn Marion (rested due to left knee issues), Brendan Haywood (sprained right knee) or Delonte West the Mavs came together as a team and ended the Spurs three-game winning streak -- as they pushed their own to three -- with a 106-99 victory.
From the opening tip, there was a desire spilled over the floor by Dallas that felt almost foreign in comparison to their recent play, a contrast so vivid it became tangible to those observing. The Spurs did not wilt, continually pushing back, refusing to allow Dallas to pull away, to become comfortable. Perhaps, this need to fight helped keep the Mavs from falling into idle.
Or, perhaps not.
Maybe it was simply a team ready to face the adversity on the court, unwilling to surrender to it.
Either way, Dallas did not relent, did not enter cruise control and did not allow the game to get away from them, leading from the opening tip to the final whistle. When San Antonio scraped their way back into it, drawing within five in the final quarter -- or at any other time, for that matter -- the Mavs responded.
"Dallas was the sharper team,'' Coach Pop said. "We were a half-step behind from the start of the night defensively and they took advantage,"
Whether it was Jason Terry or Vince Carter drilling back-to-back late daggers from behind the arc, Dirk Nowitzki simply being Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd putting up his first double-double of the season (14 points, 10 assists), Ian Mahinmi hustling and making himself felt in the paint, Brian Cardinal contributing, Brandan Wright not allowing himself to be buried by the much stronger Tim Duncan, or the dynamic play of Roddy Beaubois ... and a primary example of a fully engaged Lamar Odom ... the Mavs answered every hit thrown their way.
"Dirk is Dirk," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, noting that he's "an MVP and Hall-of-Famer.'' But, he continued, "I think Jason Kidd had a good game, I think Beaubois had a good game, Vince Carter had a good game, I thought Ian Mahinmi was good."
See what we mean? Pop just about read through the entire Mavs' roster.
Seven different Mavericks scored in the final period; only Odom and Cardinal did not. Dirk may have carried the brunt of the load for most of the night, but when the final curtain waited to fall, it was an entire team that took the stage.
There have been plenty of times we've been forced to opine over our feeling that Dallas left something short of complete effort on the court at times this season, and these whispers (were they all whispers?) have often been aimed at Lamar Odom. In what could be the biggest game of the season to this point, Odom may have not left a great impression on the boxscore (4 points, 1-7 FGs, 3 rebounds, 2 assists), but he was a factor in the game. His effort cannot be questioned here.
Odom's want-to is often questioned. Interesting, then, that after the game he would choose to talk about a teammate's toughness.
"(Dirk) probably doesn't get enough credit for being the competitor that he is, and for being so tough-minded," Odom said. "There's nothing soft about Dirk. He's tough."
Is this LO coming around emotionally? The guy is so talented and so personable (you should've heard him before the game innocently quizzing reporters about hockey after he and Khloe watched his first-ever NHL game on Friday when they took in the Stars). ... sometimes you see what the organization sees. ...
Meanwhile, another Mavs prone to going off the reservation, Jet, talked of the "week of a little turmoil'' without mentioning that, well, the source of the turmoil was ... him.
Except for the fact that the people who know him best don't take him very seriously. Dirk joked that it's not worth reporters' time to even interview Terry, and owner Mark Cuban dismissed Terry's comments about the front office forfeiting this season thusly:
"Jet's an emotional guy," Cuban said. "I don't care. Jet's been here a long time. He's earned the right to say whatever he wants. I don't read anything into it. Jet motivates himself in the ways Jet motivates himself."
Is Jet playing well a sign that he's coming around intellectually? DB.com was the first to write about Jason Terry's "CTC'' ("Cut the Check'') mentality, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to get paid and wanting a midseason contract extension (even as you know damn well this team doesn't do that and this situation doesn't call for it) and talking about "auditioning for 29 teams'' as long as all the talk is funnelled in a winning direction.
The Spurs outscored Dallas 50-to-26 in the paint, a sign of the Mavs vulnerability in playing without their best defender (Marion) and their starting center (as well as West, another strong defender). Yet, despite the size confined within suits on the bench, Dallas outworked San Antonio on the glass in dominating fashion, out-rebounding the Spurs 48-35 and working to triple their second-chance points (12-to-4).
What injury stole, hustle replaced.
Looking back once more to Roddy Beaubois, we continue to see a player who seems to have taken a giant leap forward over the All-Star break, after having also missed games to deal with the death of his father.
"(Roddy's) really figuring some things out and he's doing a great job both pushing tempo and then playing under control," Carlisle said, "and that's really key for us. ... I love everything about Roddy right now."
If Roddy B can continue along this trajectory of growth, this true earning of his time on the court, he carries with him the ability to add a dimension to this roster with his athleticism and raw scoring prowess paired with his defensive skills. Undoubtedly, there will continue to be the occasional mistakes, those moments that will irritate Carlisle and fans, but they will become buried in the positives he delivers.
Now, he must tackle consistency.
Pulling back to peer in at the season in its entirety: there comes that moment, either with a whisper or a boom, when a shift takes place, that discernible instant that slits like a razor, separating the former from the latter ... the tipping point our future selves will look to and say, "that's when everything changed."
While far too early to label this win as that, there lingers a scent in this night like the fresh smell of dew escorting the new day's arrival. It may prove to be a tease, a false awakening well before the dawn, but it's easy to wonder ... to hope.
Eight losses in 10 games was pushed aside -- though not erased -- by a pair of wins over the worst the league has to offer. Those wins helped set the table for a short-handed, convincing win over the team that would be the two-seed in the West if the playoffs were begin today.
As big as this win is, as the Mavs pry their fingers into the blade of light cutting the horizon, beckoning the light onward; it means almost nothing if the push cannot be sustained. One may lead to two, but two must lead to three, as three delivers four ... and so on.
The darkness may have been rendered momentarily servile, but it is not gone. If Dallas plays with the passion we saw against the Spurs, perhaps it soon will be. And maybe all it takes is fewer "little games'' (as nice as it is to beat the Wiz and the Bobcats) and more "big games.''
"It was a playoff battle,'' Dirk said. "Anytime we see the Spurs it's a fun game, great atmosphere, both teams really trying to get the win.''
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