Mavericks finally starting to come together

It’s odd that it takes perhaps the most talented team in the Western Conference to remind the Dallas Mavericks they aren’t so bad after all. The Mavs faced the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second time in five days Monday, and this time they finished the deal with a dominating 100-87 win at American Airlines Center.

It’s not like a 1-5 start would’ve doomed the Mavs’ season, but you couldn’t tell it by their overall effort on the second night of a back-to-back. They used a gritty defensive effort to keep it close early before guards Jason Terry and Vince Carter exploded for a combined 18 points in the second quarter to stake the Mavs to a 54-47 halftime lead.

For one night, we caught a glimpse of what this team could possibly become. The Mavs had been run off the court by the young Timberwolves on Sunday, so it’s not like anyone sensed a breakout game against the previously undefeated Thunder.

But maybe seeing an opponent four times over the past couple weeks, including the preseason, gave the Mavs a certain comfort level against the Thunder. They played well enough to win in Oklahoma City last Thursday, but Kevin Durant hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Thunder a 104-102 victory.

“I don’t even think we need a shootaround for Oklahoma,” said center Brendan Haywood, who had six points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots Monday. “We know all their plays.”

Haywood and backup center Ian Mahinmi set the tone in the first half by clogging up the lane on defense and keeping plays alive on the other end. Mahinmi finished with 10 points and nine rebounds against the Thunder. He’s scored in double digits in two of the past three games and given coach Rick Carlisle the option of being able to play a true center for long stretches.

Neither player will remind anyone of Tyson Chandler, but Haywood was able to haul in a length-of-the-court pass from Jason Kidd late in the second quarter and convert the layup to give the Mavs a 45-39 lead.

“He’s the big tight end,” joked Kidd, who finished with nine assists. “I’ve been talking to him about keeping the ball high and scoring. And he’s doing a great job.”

It also looks like newcomers Lamar Odom and Carter are starting to find their place on this team. Carter scored 12 of his season-high 14 points in the first half. He used his size to back down the Thunder guards and get to the free throw line. And Odom appears to be finally getting his legs under him after beginning the season out of shape. He finished with eight points, five rebounds and two assists in the win. Odom handled the ball a lot during his 20 minutes on the floor, and he whipped a gorgeous pass to Terry for a wide-open 3-pointer early in the second quarter.

Carlisle has vowed not to force minutes for Odom to the detriment of the team, but it now it appears the former Lakers forward is ready to contribute.

“Best yet,” Carlisle said of Odom’s performance Monday. “And he’s going to continue to improve. Tonight, we needed his ball-handling.”

Based on the circumstances, the Thunder should’ve had more energy than the Mavs after not playing the previous night. But the Mavs were more aggressive on both ends from the start. Kidd joked after the game that he’d forgotten what it was like to play with a lead.

Several players admitted they played with a sense of desperation in hopes of avoiding a 1-5 start. They were embarrassed by what happened against Minnesota the previous evening when the Mavs once again looked old and slow down the stretch. On Monday, Dirk Nowitzki nailed 10-of-16 shots and finished with 26 points. He’s looked as uncomfortable as some of the newcomers at times this season, but he found his rhythm against the Thunder.

“You don’t want to dig yourselves too deep a hole, especially in a shortened season,” said Nowitzki.

But just like they did in last year’s Western Conference Finals, the Mavs used their experience and versatility to counter the Thunder’s youth and superior athleticism. Kidd’s been around too long to panic after a poor start to the season, but he knew that Monday’s game had a different feeling.

“It’s big, I mean this is something we’re going to look at the tape tomorrow and build on because this is four [games] in five nights, and most of the time with this shortened season, these games are the throwaway games,” said Kidd. “You have every excuse to say, ‘Hey, we’re tired,’ but mentally and physically we were here tonight and that’s what we have to do from here on out.”

The Mavs showed Monday that it’s far too early to panic – even in a shortened season.