The Mavericks passed their pre-playoff final exam with flying colors.
They clearly aced it, considering that Luka Dončić scored just five points after halftime, yet the Mavericks used grit and a well-balanced attack to grind out a 113-109 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, one of the favorites to win the NBA championship and the last team they’ll see this season with a better record than they have – until the playoffs.
It was a rugged night featuring playoff-style atmosphere and physicality.
And the Mavericks handled it all just fine.
“This is all experience that we need,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “They’re all situations that are new. Last year at this time, we were locked into the seventh position and weren’t going to go lower. This year’s a whole different ballgame. There’s so much in play.
“The thing I’m most proud of with this group is they are blocking out all the external noise and doing everything possible to help each other play well. This was a great win for us. I thought the guys really fought hard to get it.”
And there was no way to overstate its importance.
The Mavericks reached 10 games over .500 for the first time this season at 38-28 and strengthened their tenuous grip on the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
Along the way, they proved they can compete hard against one of the best teams in the league.
“Everybody knows what time it is,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who kept his hot scoring run going with 23 points. “That postseason energy, that postseason atmosphere, that postseason grit that you have to have moving forward going into that part of the season – I think everybody knows it’s crunch time and everybody’s trying to build up to that postseason edge.”
The Mavericks nosed in front by seven points midway through the fourth quarter against the Nets, who own the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, but now are 0-3 on this five-game trip.
With that lead, they did everything they needed to down the stretch to protect it. When Dončić made his first basket of the second half with 3:11 to play, the Mavericks were up 106-99. They never gave the Nets a chance to tie or take the lead in the final possessions, although Kyrie Irving tried his best to derail the Mavericks with 45 points.
The victory moved Carlisle to 832 coaching victories, tied with legendary coach Cotton Fitzsimmons for 15th place on the all-time NBA wins list. It also completed a season series sweep for the Mavericks over the Nets, who fell to 43-24.
The versatile scoring was led by Luka with 24. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Dorian Finney-Smith, who won the defensive player-of-the-game belt, did a commendable job on Kevin Durant, who needed 21 shots to get 20 points. Dwight Powell bailed out the Mavericks on several possessions when they were having trouble treading water in the third quarter.
And Jalen Brunson, with 15 points, helped close out the game strong as the Mavericks placed six players in double-figure scoring.
The Mavericks once again were without Kristaps Porzingis (right knee soreness) and Maxi Kleber (right Achilles).
Porzingis missed his third consecutive game and Carlisle gave a update on the 7-3 center before Thursday’s game.
“I think he’s doubtful for tomorrow (against Cleveland at AAC), just my opinion based on what I’ve gathered the last 24 hours,” Carlisle said. “But he is making progress. I expect him to play regular-season games at some point. I don’t know exactly when.”
Asked specifically about the option of sitting Porzingis until the playoffs, Carlisle said: “When he is ready to come back and play an NBA game, we need him back on the floor. He’s obviously one of our top players and the sooner we can get him back on the floor, the sooner he can re-establish conditioning, rhythm, chemistry with teammates, those kind of things.
“Time is of the essence. We can’t rush Mother Nature, ever. That’s a given. But we’re looking to get him back when he’s ready to be back.”
Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash can relate. He’s had James Harden, who remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, Durant and Irving together for only seven games this season. The last time they all played was Feb. 13.
But that’s not the Mavericks’ concern.
Thursday proved they are focused on the playoffs and making sure they are ready for all the drama that comes with them.