The Mavericks have yet to win a game in the NBA’s restart, but they still had a reason to celebrate on Sunday.
An icy shooting stretch doomed them to a 117-115 loss to Phoenix, dropping them to 0-2 since the league began the eight seeding games at the Walt Disney World campus.
It’s been 144 days since their 40th win of this crazy season. But even without the sweet taste of victory, the Mavericks (40-29) got good news earlier on Sunday, which made this a night of mixed emotions.
They are back in the playoffs, officially, for the first time since 2016.
Just before the Mavericks started their game, San Antonio beat Memphis, which meant the Mavericks officially had clinched a playoff berth and no worse than the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
That development was only a matter of time, of course, but it’s still nice to get the affirmation. And there still is a chance the Mavericks could rise in the standings, but they’ll have to start taking care of business in the bubble in a hurry – plus they’ll need a little help from teams in front of them.
“It’s important,” coach Rick Carlisle said of the playoff spot. “We’re certainly happy about it. We certainly would have liked to have won the other night and gotten in on a win. But to be in and be assured of the seventh position is good, but we came here to move up.”
So far, that’s a no-go. They had a dismal second half – particularly a wretched third quarter – that turned the game around against the Suns.
The Mavericks were 1-for-18 from 3-point range after halftime. And they were outscored 36-19 in the third quarter, which has been a periodic problem throughout this season. The night’s result took the luster off of being able to say the Mavericks are a playoff team.
“That was the objective – to get to the playoffs this year,” said Luka Doncic. “It doesn’t matter who you play. If you want to win, you got to beat everybody. We just got to learn from these mistakes. We got to start the third quarters stronger and be physical. We got to learn from that.”
It was Doncic’s layup with 39 seconds left that drew the Mavericks within 117-115 after they had trailed 109-100 midway through the fourth quarter. Doncic again had a monster night with 40 points, 11 assists and eight assists.
But after Kristaps Porzingis blocked a Ricky Rubio shot, the Mavericks had two chances to pull out a win, but Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. both missed 3-pointers in the final seconds.
That was typical of a night when the Mavericks were 6-of-31 from 3-point range.
So the only solace they could take was in the fact that they are, indeed a playoff team.
“Obviously, our goal was to make the playoffs and we achieved that,” Porzingis said. “We’re going to try to win every game we have left in the regular season. And then we’ll see where we end up.
“This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. These kind of games, we have to use them as fuel for us to keep working and keep getting better. It’s another tough loss for us. But this is part of the process. We’re going to get through this and get better and won’t let these things happen again.”
“These things” primarily have come in the third quarter. In the last five games the Mavericks have played (including three before the stoppage on March 11) they have been outscored by 26 points in the third quarter. They are 1-4 in those games.
“The third quarter was the difference in the game, that was pretty obvious,” Carlisle said. “We did a few good things in the fourth to get right there again. But when you play as poorly as we did in the third, you just leave too many things to chance.”
The Mavericks had some bright spots early and late. But they were dulled by the third quarter. It was especially bad after Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker – the Suns’ two leading scorers – left early in the quarter with five fouls. The Mavericks were up 81-70.
Phoenix went on a 26-11 blitz to finish the quarter and the Mavericks never fully recovered.
“Our problems in the third quarter started at the beginning,” Carlisle said. “We had three or four very bad possessions to start and they were uncharacteristically poor when you compare them to how we were playing in the first half. That got things going the wrong way. And Phoenix did a good job of rallying and keeping the momentum going.”
And so, the Mavericks had to look forward to the playoffs that start in mid-August. The next six games will give them a chance to get their ship in order.
The Mavericks essentially were yearly playoff participants during Dirk Nowitzki’s two-decade-plus run as the franchise cornerstone. The last time he and the Mavericks were in the postseason, they lost to Oklahoma City in five games in the 2016 first round.
The only Mavericks players left from that team are J.J. Barea and Dwight Powell.
Doncic, Porzingis and Dorian Finney-Smith – 60 percent of the starting lineup – as well as key reserve Maxi Kleber will be making their first NBA playoff appearances.