Struggling Kings, Mavericks in search of positives

Two teams at the bottom of the Western Conference hook up Tuesday night as the Sacramento Kings visit the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.

For the Mavericks, their third game this season against Sacramento is their final outing before the All-Star break. Dallas (18-39) has dropped eight of its last 10, but there is a feeling lately within the locker room that things are pointed in the right direction.

The Mavs pushed the Houston Rockets before falling in a close game Sunday despite not having Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews or J.J. Barea.

“I loved everything about it,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of the 104-97 loss. “The compete level was excellent. We battled the whole way.”

Rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. scored 16 and dished out a season-high 11 assists and didn’t back down in going against Chris Paul.

“I loved Smith’s game,” Carlisle said. “The balance between scoring and playmaking was excellent. It’s a lot to ask to come (into Houston) and win the game, but to basically compete the whole way, hang around and make them play the whole game was good. I thought our guys got better.”

Small forward Doug McDermott, acquired at the trade deadline, scored eight in his first start for Dallas. Yogi Ferrell had a team-high 20 points. Dwight Powell had 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“I’m definitely proud of our young guys, being able to come here and play against a team with a lot of talent and a lot of great players. I thought we battled,” Harrison Barnes said. “It’s huge for us, especially at a time where some of our vets weren’t able to travel and weren’t healthy. I thought our young guys stepped up, they played well, and they got good experience against a team that’s going to be contending. You know, unfortunately, the game got away from us a little bit in the second half, but for the most part we did a lot of good things that we can build on.”

The Kings (17-38) will head into the break after a Texas two-step that ends Wednesday at Houston. Sacramento is coming off a 111-106 loss at Minnesota on Sunday night.

Rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox led the Kings with 23 points. With George Hill traded and Frank Mason III injured, Fox is the only healthy point guard on the roster.

He doesn’t mind the extra work, or the additional responsibility he’s been given by coach Dave Joeger.

“A lot of times coach just gives me the freedom,” Fox said. “Sometimes I’ll look over at the bench and he’ll look at me or he won’t say anything, he just lets me run the team every once in a while. It’s great for me. It’s allowed me to grow as a player, grow as a point guard and my teammates are starting to trust me.”

The Mavericks and Kings split the first two games this season, each winning on the road. Sacramento has won five of the last seven matchups and three straight in Dallas.