Mavs 103, Blazers 98: The Emotional Balance

The Mavs threatened to lose a game in which they'd held a 30-point lead on Friday at home against Portland and it's fair to say the season was hanging in the emotional balance of the outcome. Lose in such an ignominious fashion and it sticks with you. Close the game with an 11-0 run to win 103-98? Hey, maybe that sticks with you, too.

It's easy enough to say that every game is crucial. Hey, Wednesday's Mavs-at-Denver loss was billed by coach Rick Carlisle as a "Super Bowl,'' right? And the Dallas Mavericks came into Friday's home game against the Blazers seeking an understanding that this is "a time of great urgency'' coming off of their first three-game losing streak of the season.

So they had the platitudes covered. And there was the hint that somewhere in here it isn't just about the fact that the Western Conference standings are airtight from the sixth seed all the way to the ninth seed, with the Mavericks entering the weekend clinging to the eighth spot.

Somewhere in here, it's also about pride.

"Fight for each other, fight with each other," Dirk Nowitzki said after Dallas had gained an early 30-point lead, then trailed by six with four minutes left, then closed out a 103-98 win with some of the season's best basketball dramatics. "You're going to lose some, but I like our chances if we're out there and we're playing together and we're fighting together."
Here, chronologically, is how they fought ...

Mavericks point guard Jose Calderon, such a downer defensively in Denver, seemed more than ready to meet the challenge that awaited him Friday night. Calderon set the pace for the Mavericks by scoring 15 points in the first quarter off of 6-of-7 shooting. Meanwhile, the Mavs held one of the league's highest-scoring teams to just 10 first-quarter points (the lowest total Dallas has allowed in a quarter all season) and led 33-10 at the end of the period.

The Mavericks built up a 30-point lead in the second quarter before the Blazers trimmed it back down to 19. The solid team defense maintained as Dallas held Portland to just 37-percent shooting from the floor. The Mavericks, on the other hand shot 54 percent in the first half. Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki and Calderon combined to shoot 16-of-27 and scored 39 points in the first two quarters, giving the Mavs a 57-38 halftime lead.

Thirty-point leads? Teams don't lose those. Such a margin has occurred 80 times in the NBA this year, producing 8-0 winners. Dallas is still haunted by Dec. 6, 2002, when the Mavericks lost at the Lakers 105-103 after leading 66-36 early in the third quarter. And of course, what might get etched on the gravestone of this year's otherwise competent edition of the Mavs: The fact they've lost five games in which they held leads of 17 points or more.

'There's been a s---house full of em,' Carlisle acknowledged, before acknowledging that his young daughter was within press-conference earshot. "Abby, you didn't hear that.''

The Blazers began the second half unwilling to fold. In fact they did more than just erase the enormous deficit - they took the lead. Running the offense through LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 18 of his 26 points in the third, the Blazers offense exploded, rattling off 36 points while Dallas only managed 18.

The Mavericks tried to avoid completely falling apart after blowing a 30-point lead. Vince Carter responded with a vintage one-handed dunk over Robin Lopez and the Mavericks regained the edge behind Nowitzki's five points in the final minute of the quarter.

So they led 75-74 going into the fourth quarter, a quarter they had largely struggled with in the previous three games. ... and this could boil down to a "normal'' game between two good teams, right?


The official NBA highlight reel ...

While the Mavs couldn't seem to buy a foul call in the third quarter they managed to get into the bonus with just under nine minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, something they sorely needed as Portland jumped out to a seven-point lead to start the fourth. Dallas promptly took that lead back behind a Devin Harris three-pointer, making it 90-89 Dallas with 7:14 left in the game.

Portland then built a 98-92 lead with 4:26 left forcing a Dallas timeout after an Aldridge alley-oop. And while the AAC featured a smattering of boos and some marching to the exists, apparently the right things were said in that Mavs timeout huddle; the Blazers didn't score another point for the rest of the game.

In the crucial moments of a crucial game, the Mavericks won with their defense.

While Calderon ignited the Mavericks' huge first quarter, Carlisle chose to bench him late in the game in favor of Harris. The move paid off and then some. Harris played great on-ball defense and penetrated at will in the closing minutes. With under two minutes to play Harris, drove to the basket and converted on a three-point play, which after the game, Carlisle and others in the Dallas locker room called as big a play as the team has had all season.
"Devin Harris made a couple really huge plays," Carlisle said of Devin, who finished the game with 12 points and speculation about him possibly becoming a starter. "(His) three point play was a huge play."

Added Dirk: "We actually ran a play (for Harris). It's called ‘Get Out Of The Way.'"

A pleasant surprise: a rejuvenated Samuel Dalembert. After playing only eight minutes and being benched the entire second half of the loss to the Nuggets, Dalembert played 28 minutes here. His stats might not jump off the page (he finished with four points, eight rebounds and three blocks), but his defensive activity did.

"Dalembert was great," Carlisle said. "He protected the rim."

Ellis' shooting remained suspect; he shot just 6-of-13 from the field and missed two free throws that would have iced the game. (Luckily, Carter grabbed the offensive rebound and proceeded to hit two free throws). But Ellis was engaged for all 42 of the minutes that he played. He finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and should be credited with solid defensive effort. Meanwhile, Dirk totaled 22 points, with six assists and five rebounds.

(Those are among the candidates for "The Dirkie'' ... let's go vote!)


Blowing a 30-point lead could have led to a devastating loss that might have sent the Mavericks deeper into a downward spiral. So is it "just one win''? Or does it prove something and mean something as the teeter totter keeps teeter-tottering?

We didn't want to give up,'' Devin said. "We knew we still had a chance to win the game, and guys just kept fighting till the end."

That approach doesn't just have to be about one game and one end. It can be about a fourth of a season, and about extending its end.

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