HOUSTON — Although it was five preseason games in the making, Dallas Mavericks fans got their first look at the team’s new starting lineup Monday night in Houston.
One game after the return of starting point guard Jose Calderon from a strained left hamstring injury that caused the 32-year-old veteran to miss the team’s first four exhibition contests, the Mavericks rolled out their new and improved starting unit as 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki returned from his one-game hiatus due to a scheduled rest. The team then went in search of a third straight win in preseason play as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle looked for his first-stringers to get off to a quick start against All-Star center Dwight Howard and the Southwest Division rival Houston Rockets.
“Tonight’s the first night we’re going to get a chance to get all those guys together, so this will be a good opportunity for us,” Carlisle said before taking the court with his starting lineup intact. “You know, we have three games left, so we’ve got to get the most minutes together that we can to get chemistry, to get flow and to get our defensive posture where it needs to be. I mean, that’s going to be one of our big goals this year, to be better defensively. So, yeah, tonight’s big for a lot of reasons.”
But the Mavericks’ starters would only play together into the third period. And although they would show glimpses of good things to come, the Mavericks would fall to 3-3 in the preseason following a 100-95 defeat.
Seeing their first time on the court together, the Mavs’ starters came out of the gate fast as Calderon and Nowitzki were joined by center Samuel Dalembert, small forward Shawn Marion and 2-guard Monta Ellis. Meanwhile, Houston featured two big men in their first unit as Howard and 7-footer Omer Asik were joined by perimeter scoring threat James Harden, sharpshooter Chandler Parsons and point guard Jeremy Lin.
And with Calderon taking advantage of his matchup with Lin, scoring 11 first-quarter points on 5-of-6 shooting, the Mavs sprinted to an early 33-25 advantage after one.
“Well, I wanted to be aggressive,” Calderon said of his early offensive assault on the Houston defense. “I was open, so I was just trying to get the defense on me first and then afterwards try to pass the ball. Some nights I’m going to have to pass the ball, some nights I’m going to have to score. It depends on what the team is going to give you, but every day I think I’m feeling more comfortable.”
After lighting the net on fire with 14-of-25 shooting in the first period, the Mavs went back on the attack in the second stanza as Nowitzki began to come alive to power the visiting Dallas team to a nine-point edge. However, the Rockets would come storming back behind their stellar outside shooting, emerging with the Mavs in a 55-51 hole entering the intermission.
Despite dominating most of the first half, the Mavs found themselves down at the break while holding a slight rebounding edge, 25-24. Led by Calderon, Dallas’ 42.9 percent shooting at the midway mark also just bettered Houston’s 42.6 percent at the other end of the court. However, the Rockets (4-1) claimed the edge through 24 minutes of play with 10-of-16 shooting from 3-point range.
“Things were going really well, but they started hitting shots. You know, the threes killed us. … When a team is shooting so well from the 3-point line, it’s going to be a long night,” Dalembert confessed.
After giving up 13 points apiece to the Rockets’ duo of Howard and Harden in the first half, the Mavs returned to the hardwood hoping to hone in on stopping the two All-Stars on the defensive end. Led by Nowitzki’s end-to-end play, the Mavs would make the proper corrections while regaining the advantage on the scoreboard with an 8-0 run.
The Rockets would regain the momentum, though, taking the lead right back in the process before Nowitzki’s night ended early on a flagrant-2 foul delivered to the head of Rockets forward Omri Casspi with 24.5 seconds remaining in the third. The Mavs then limped into the final period down five, 75-70.
With the game in the hands of his young reserves, Carlisle would begin to see the scoreboard getting away from his team. Led by sharpshooter Wayne Ellington, the young Mavs would respond, however, climbing to within three before Aaron Brooks’ jumper made it a 94-87 margin in Houston’s favor with 1:58 remaining.
And despite the best efforts of rookies Gal Mekel and Ricky Ledo, Brooks would soon seal the Mavs’ fate a short time later by putting the finishing touches on Dallas’ loss.
Sitting out the fourth quarter, Calderon led the Mavs with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting in 27 minutes of work and Dalembert added 13 points and seven rebounds inside while collecting three blocks. Meanwhile, Ellington added 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting and 3-of-5 from 3-point range off the bench. And before exiting early, Nowitzki tallied up 11 points, four rebounds and four blocks of his own.
Leading five Rockets in double figures was Harden, who scored 19 points on 6-of-9 from the field. Howard added a monster night inside, scoring 15 points and grabbing 17 rebounds in his 29 minutes of action. The Rockets also connected on 13-of-28 shooting from 3-point range compared to the Mavs’ 9-of-27 from behind the arc.
Dallas did, however, turn Houston’s 23 turnovers into 22 points at the other end, surrendering 18 giveaways of their own for 22 of the Rockets’ points. But the Rockets ended the night outshooting the Mavs, 41.7 percent to 40.4 percent, in addition to a 54-42 rebounding advantage.
“We did some good things, but we’ve got to get better in some areas,” Carlisle confessed after the loss. “This is the best team we’ve seen in person by far, and we’ve seen some good teams. … This is going to be one of the top teams in the league. I thought we did some good things. We adjusted to things that they were doing, we took some of the threes away in the second half, we scrambled pretty well, but there’s some areas we’ve just got to get better.”
“We did good. We did some good stuff and some bad stuff, but for the first time I think we’ve got to be positive,” Calderon added while summing up the performance of the first unit. “They’re a pretty good team. They run up and down and they’ve got a lot of good 3-point shooters, so we had some problems with that. But I think we were moving the ball and finding the open guy. The first and third quarters were good, so I think we’ve just got to keep working. I think it was good for the first time.”
Note: The Mavericks return to American Airlines Center Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks. The game will air locally on Fox Sports Southwest at 7:30 p.m. CT. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by calling (214) 747-MAVS (6287) or by visiting Mavs.com.