Mavs Vs. Rockets: Lost + Found (+ Lost Again)

DALLAS - First the Mavs lost a spine-less point guard. Then they found their 'basketball soul.' Then they lost a heartbreaking Game 3 in which their search for answers includes blaming the officials. A story of Lost and Found ... and Lost again.



Rockets 130, Mavs 128

The hope was "addition by subtraction'' in the case of the plague that was Rajon Rondo, who history will show came down with a mysterious back injury not during Game 2 in Houston but rather after the game, right around the time Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle informed him he'd be playing a non-starting role in Friday's Game 3. Rondo responded by slithering his way out of Dallas -- no, he did not attend the game, because why would a doctor purposely allow disease into a hospital? -- and the Mavs responded to his absence with one of their more spirited efforts of the season.

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“We’re losing manpower,'' said Carlisle, who now has injury concerns with Game 3 starters Felton and Jefferson, too. "But guys are fighting their asses off and I love it. We’re going to be back in here fighting our asses off on Sunday.''

Late in the regular season, after a dull loss at Phoenix, Carlisle pointedly questioned his team's "basketball soul.'' It's a haunting issue still, one that won't go away after this series puts the 0-3 Mavs out of their misery, because I promise you in the rebuilding/reloading/replugging of this roster starting July 1, "basketball soul'' will need to be on the next roster's collective resume.



But it was there Friday, featuring two guys who seemed so in synch in that department and others before the ultimately misguided attempt to upgrade back in December with the blockbuster trade for Rondo. Right up until the end, when their two-man game resulted in a Monta Ellis jumper to tie that clanked off the right side of the glass nowhere near the rim, Monta and Dirk Nowitzki were as dominant offensively as James Harden and Dwight Howard were.

What they could not match, according to Carlisle (and most everybody else in the home team's locker room) was Houston's on-the-edge, rule-bending physicality.

“That stuff’s got to stop,” Carlisle said. “The officials have got to get that stuff under control, because there’s too much physical stuff going on. ... Howard is throwing people all over the place. And that can’t happen in Game 4.”

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Carlisle isn't just griping to gripe. He specifically cited a key play in the fourth quarter (dmnews photo) when Howard used one arm to sling Devin Harris to the floor while using the other to corral a loose ball, the play triggering an easy bucket for Houston while the non-call didn't trigger Howard being burdened with foul trouble.

“Look, referees miss calls,” Carlisle said. “But there’s just a lot of physical stuff going on out there that just doesn’t look kosher to me. They’re a more physical team, but this series has got to be played within the rules.”



The Mavs can also argue that Harden is re-writing the rulebook with his cheat-code knack of absorbing "violent'' fouls despite a lack of "violent'' contact. But that doesn't take away from his 42-point brilliance (and his game-winner over TY), just as none of the complaining takes away from Howard's muscular 26-rebound effort.

No, the complaining is strategic. It has earned Carlisle a $25,000 fine but that will be a fair trade if it at all changes the way the whistles are blown in Game 4.

Dallas needn't change much on offense, where Monta scored 20 first-half points on the way to 34 and Dirk was "The Great Nowitzki'' (Rick's words) with 34 of his own. They poured such effort into trying to notch a win -- fully aware that no team in NBA history has ever recovered from an 0-3 hole to win a series -- that Dirk said, "This ranks up there with the toughest playoff losses I've had in my long playoff career. This definitely is up there."

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The ranking of pain is high. The ranking of success is low. In the last few days, Chandler Parsons has been lost to a season-ending knee injury and Rondo has been lost to apathy so shocking there are actually respected voices suggesting he "tanked'' Game 2. So now? You applaud the energy and effort that made this a wildly-entertaining one-possession game. Harris, Aminu and Barea were all part of that, all exhibiting their "basketball souls.''

In addressing the tight nature of this game, Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, “We just happened to land the last punch.” He didn't mean that as some fancy metaphoric symbol of the different between these two teams' physicality ... but it works just the same.

Dallas doesn't possess enough physicality in this matchup. Dallas doesn't even really possess life in this matchup. But as Mavs body parts are being assessed, at least Dallas possesses a basketball soul.



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