Despite their hottest shooting game all season, the Mavericks fell short in a comeback effort against the Miami Heat, making the club’s pursuit of the play-in spot all the more challenging as the final week of the regular season begins.

Dallas trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half and 16 in the second but, thanks to shooting a season-best 61.0 percent from the field, the game still hung in the balance down the stretch. Heat star Jimmy Butler made a few difficult pull-ups, though, to help put the game away and give Miami a 129-122 win and drop the Mavs to 37-41 on the season. Head coach Jason Kidd said when you’re trying to come back from such a large deficit, there’s no margin for error.

“You’ve got to play perfect,” Kidd said. “We just didn’t play perfect. We turned the ball over when we got stops, or we missed open shots. You’ve got to be able to deliver when you’re behind, and we just didn’t do that tonight.”

Luka Dončić led the way for Dallas with 42 points on 17-of-25 shooting from the floor. We’re used to seeing dazzling statlines from Dončić, but for one reason or another that’s never been the case in Miami – until now. Dončić’s previous high-scoring mark on South Beach was just 23 points. The Heat and head coach Erik Spoelstra typically throw all sorts of exotic looks his way in hopes of knocking him off his rhythm, but Dončić had all the answers tonight.

So, too, did Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored a season-best 31 points on sizzling 11-of-15 shooting. It was Hardaway’s first 30-point game since, coincidentally enough, the last time he played in Miami back in 2021. Hardaway’s father, Tim Sr., starred for the Heat for years, so it makes sense that Junior would feel right at home. Meanwhile Kyrie Irving scored 23 and handed out eight assists.

“Timmy, Kai, and Luka, offensively they were great,” Kidd said. “They kept us in the ballgame.”

Their efforts weren’t enough to overcome the Heat’s similarly hot offense, though, led by Butler’s 35 points and a season-high 12 assists. Many of those dimes went to center Cody Zeller, playing in just his 13th game of the season in relief of injured All-Star big man Bam Adebayo. Zeller poured in 20 points, his most in a game since Nov. 10, 2019.

Miami controlled the game from the start, roaring out to a 44-31 lead after the opening frame, thanks in part to a perfect 9-for-9 mark from the free throw line. Dwight Powell picked up three fouls in the first half and Maxi Kleber had two as well, as Dallas struggled to contain the Heat’s dribble penetration. Miami ranks just 19th in free throw attempts per game but is the second-best at knocking them down, and finished the game 26 of 29 from the charity stripe.

“First-quarter woes, for sure,” Hardaway said. “I don’t know what to tell you. You give anybody 40-plus points in the first quarter, you don’t have a chance in (heck) to win.”

Dallas came out of the gates hot as well, at least initially, leading 22-17 after five minutes before the Heat went on an extended 36-15 run over the next 12 minutes of game time to take a 53-37 advantage. The Mavs clawed all the way back to within five points a few different times and nearly had a chance to make it a three-point game, but Miami successfully challenged a would-be three-shot foul with 11 seconds left to prevent Dončić from further cutting into the lead. Kidd praised the offense, but stressed again that the defense must improve.

“We didn’t end the first the right way and we kind of stalled out at 31 (points) but they kept going, so yes, our defense was non-existent,” Kidd said. “We couldn’t get stops. But I thought again in the second, we went on a run — offensively we shot 61 percent, so it wasn’t the offensive side of the ball (that was the problem). It was the defensive side, trying to get stops.”

The Mavs are now one game behind 10th-place Oklahoma City (38-40) in the Western Conference, but OKC has the tiebreaker advantage over Dallas by virtue of winning the head-to-head season series 2-1. Simply matching their win total won’t get the job done; the Mavericks will have to win more games than them in order to make it into the top-10 and the play-in tournament. However, just four games remain this season, making that a tall order. Still, they need to keep the right mindset.

“Do you want to continue your season?” Kidd said. “As players, you control your energy and effort. The responsibility of going out there and playing hard for one another is at a high level right now, and unfortunately we’ve just been inconsistent with that.”

“I’m always gonna stay positive going into each and every game,” Hardaway added. “We’ve just gotta play hard, play with desperation, and anything can happen. I still believe.”

There’s not much time to lick wounds, though, as Dallas will meet Atlanta on Sunday on the second night of a back-to-back. The Hawks won the previous meeting this season 130-122 in January, but that was before the Irving trade. It’ll be a totally new matchup this time around, with the Mavs needing a different result as well. Tipoff is at 5 p.m. CST.

DONČIĆ REACHES 9K: Luka Dončić scored his 9,000th career point early in the first quarter, reaching the milestone in just his 327th career game. According to Stathead, only seven players in NBA history have reached 9K in fewer games than Dončić, an illustrious group including Walt Bellamy, Bob McAdoo, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, and of course Wilt Chamberlain. Not bad company to keep. Wilt, of course, dominated to a historic degree in the early years of his career. To give you an idea of just how unstoppable Chamberlain was – by the time he played his 327th career game, he’d already scored 13,867 points. Career scoring leader LeBron James, for those curious, didn’t reach 9,000 until his 358th game.

A PHYSICAL AFFAIR: Despite the high-scoring nature of this one, don’t be fooled into thinking there wasn’t some physicality on display. In the first half, Heat big man Kevin Love tumbled right into Dončić after a tussle going for a rebound, rolling up on Dončić’s right ankle. Fortunately all was well despite an initial scare, and No. 77 didn’t even need to leave the game. Later on, Love caught Tim Hardaway Jr. with a forearm making a move in the post, and following a replay review was handed a flagrant-1 foul for unnecessary contact. Hardaway hit both free throws. All in all, the teams combined to commit 39 fouls.

HALL OF FAMER: Dirk Nowitzki is officially a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and rightfully so. Nowitzki was a 14-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA selection, the 2007 MVP, the 2011 Finals MVP, and is the NBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer with a whopping 31,560 career points. Check out for more on Nowitzki’s honor.

Twitter: @bobbykaralla

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