The Mavericks could not have asked for a better chance to show that they had conquered their biggest demon from last season.
The inability to close out nail-biting games festered through much of 2018-19.
The new season did not bring new results, at least not in the season opener.
It was Chris Paul and Devin Booker who made the key plays for Phoenix in the final possessions as the Mavericks let a game that was tied with under two minutes left get away from them. The Suns scored six of the last eight points to post a 106-102 victory at Phoenix Suns Arena Wednesday night.
The Mavericks had relied on their improved defense much of the night, but their legendary offense of last season was missing until Luka Dončić and Jalen Brunson powered a fourth-quarter rally from 12 points behind.
Coach Rick Carlisle said the Mavericks were fighting uphill in the second half after falling behind by double figures late in the first half.
“We got it tied once or twice and had an opportunity or two to get the lead and couldn’t do it,” he said. “That was disappointing because I thought we really fought hard during those stretches.
“Winning and losing in the Western Conference this year is going to come down to concentration on details and there’s just a few things we just got to do better.”
Nobody was more exasperated by the finish than Dončić, who finished with 32 points but shot just 11-of-26 from the field and was not happy with his decision-making in the final moments.
“Attack the paint, for sure,” Dončić said when asked what had to be done better down the stretch. “That was my bad. I got to stop taking these very bad shots. It wasn’t just the last one. There were a couple there.
“It’s not good for me. It’s not good for the team. And I got to change it. We were attacking the paint really good in the second half. And we should just keep doing that.”
The Mavericks had the game tied at 96 after Brunson had found Willie Cauley-Stein for an easy bucket, and again at 100 after two Dončić free throws. Booker made one of two free throws and after Maxi Kleber missed a 3-pointer, Paul hit a 16-footer.
That’s when Dončić missed badly on a 3-pointer that was measured at more than 26 feet. Booker then canned an 18-footer and the Suns were up 105-100 and had enough gas to get to the finish line.
Last season, the Mavericks were 17-24 in what the NBA defines as clutch games, which have a spread of five points or fewer in the final five minutes.
They are 0-1 this season.
“Definitely an opportunity for us,” said Brunson, who had all 12 of his points in the fourth quarter. “When it was 96-all, we were pretty confident. Obviously, a couple things happened. Book hit a shot. Someone else hit a three. Like I said, this is a first step. We’re going to get it right. We have no other option.”
The Mavericks did some positive things, for sure. They even survived a minor scare when Dončić appeared to trip over his own foot while running downcourt in traffic. He came away limping for a moment, but said after the game there was no sprained ankle and no problem with the ankle going forward for the Christmas Day game in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
As for Luka’s 0-for-6 start shooting (and 0-for-6 from 3-point land) and the fact that he had only five assists in more than 35 minutes, Carlisle was unconcerned.
“He’s still getting his game legs under him,” he said. “That will get there. But he understands the game as well as any 21-year-old I’ve ever been around. He’ll make the adjustments that are necessary.”
Starting the season 0-1 looks a little worse when you factor in the upcoming games in LA. After the Lakers, they play the Clippers on Sunday. Those two teams are the leading favorites to win the Western Conference.
That the Mavericks are playing the Lakers on Christmas Day is a good sign that the Mavericks are solidly back on the NBA’s radar. Much of that is because of Luka, although he said:
“It’s a long way to go to be one of the faces of the league. But we’re playing the champions. It’s going to be something special. I always wanted to play on Christmas Day.”
It’ll give him and the Mavericks a chance to get rid of the nasty aftertaste of the season opener.
Obviously, it will not be easy against the defending champions.
“We got to look at this and really study ourselves and see the things we need to clean up,” Carlisle said. “And then we’re going to have to do a study on the Lakers, figure out what the best matchups and coverages are going to be for us defensively. Look, that’s the world champs. We’re obviously going to have to play a high-level game.”