It was a Dirk-vs.Kobe duel, but big-picture, Sunday at the American Airlines Center was more than that: Dallas and LA combined to win three of the past four NBA titles, and while the Lakers’ 103-99 win was a thriller – and while it was fun watching the once-mighty play at a high level … the once-mighty fell again.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The Sunday matinee matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers featured two teams that combined to win three of the past four NBA Championships. However, instead of fighting for a top seed and home court advantage, these two teams were came into Sunday fighting for their playoff lives.
After a 103-99 loss, Dallas now sits at 25-30, no closer to their goal of shaving their .500 beards and 4.5 games out of playoff contention.
“That was a big two-game swing [Los Angeles entered the day one game ahead of Dallas] against us with the loss today and we needed this one with so much at stake,” Elton Brand said afterwards.
Many will focus on Dirk’s Nowitzki’s best game of the season, 30 points and 13 rebounds – his first double-double of the year. Or how it was being outshined by Kobe’s 38 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists. Though Mavericks defended Kobe well for most of the day, Bryant was simply other-worldly, hitting tough shot after tough shot.
Dirk on Kobe, joking about Dallas owner Mark Cuban’s pokes at the Lakers and the CBA: “They should’ve listened to Cuban and amnestied him this morning.”
But this game was no joke. And it was one of missed opportunities, beyond the brilliance of Bryant and Dirk, for Dallas.
Their mutual admiration is worth noting.
Kobe on Dirk: ”He’s one of my all-time favorites. He’s a throwback type of player. He doesn’t mind the physicality. He made some incredible plays down the stretch.”
Dirk on Kobe: ”He’s been the best player in my decade. I’ve been in the NBA a long time and he’s the one player I love to watch. It was a big game on the national TV stage. It was a fun one. We just came up a little bit short.”
Indeed, Dallas led 90-87 at the 5:48 mark of the final quarter but allowed the Lakers to go on a 7-0 run to seize a lead they would never relinquish.
Beyond Bryant, former Maverick Steve Nash gashed his old team for 20 points on 7-12 shooting, including 4-5 from the three-point line. Another former Maverick, Antawn Jamison, was also productive, notching 13 points on 5-10 shooting.
Despite his recent strong play, Dwight Howard was held in check by the Dallas big men, scoring only nine points, five of which came at the free throw line. It should be noted that Chris Kaman, playing a strong game after missing the previous 10, provided some inspired defense on Howard at times.
Dallas also wasted an unusually decisive advantage in the paint. The Mavericks outscored the Lakers by 20 in the paint, 44-24 and grabbed 12 offensive rebounds.
Coming into the game, Dallas looked to focus on two aspects: 1) pushing the tempo and 2) limiting turnovers. On the former, Los Angeles was 30th in the NBA in fast-break defense. Sunday, Dallas managed only 12 points on the break, losing a key edge while Los Angeles notched 16 points in transition.
Dallas did, however, accomplish the mission of limiting turnovers. Coming into today’s game, Dallas was 15-7 in games in which they committed 12 turnovers or less. Dallas would exactly 12 today, and now falls to 15-8 in such games.
Despite the recent surge by Nowitzki and Carter, OJ Mayo’s scoring continues to be a barometer for Dallas’ success this season. Sunday, he would score only eight points on 2-9 shooting, with three turnovers and five fouls. Dallas is now 1-7 in games this season in which Mayo fails to score at least 10 points.
Despite the missed opportunities, Dallas was within one possession up to the final seconds of the game, one of the most playoff-like atmosphere’s Dallas has played in this season.
“Our younger guys gotta get used to playing in games like this,” head coach Rick Carlisle would say afterwards, a curious statement given that 37 year-old Mike James earned 75 percent of the fourth quarter minutes at the point while 25-year-old Collison sat.
“We’ve got to regroup and we’ve got to keep fighting. We still have time so it was just a disheartening loss. Another close, tough loss and we feel we let one slip away again,” Elton Brand summarized afterwards.
This game offered a glimpse of the Mavericks’ season in a nutshell. Though Dallas is still trending in the right direction, now 6-4 in their last 10, too many missed opportunities — Sunday and all season long — put Dallas in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, an illustration of just how far the once-mighty Mavericks have fallen.
And given the Lakers’ proximity to Dallas, just how far LA has fallen, too.