After watching the Mavericks give up another 70-point first half on its home floor, Rick Carlisle knew his team needed an attitude adjustment.
What he saw after they had a blunt conversation among themselves at halftime about their play that was equal parts soft and selfish for 24 minutes convinced him that they can escape this rough patch. And soon.
The team got a stern talking-to – from each other – and that in turn led to one of their best quarters of the season.
It was a great wake-up call. Unfortunately, it came with a snooze button.
After coming alive at both ends of the court in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead, the Mavericks ran into problems in the fourth period that allowed Michael Porter Jr. and the Denver Nuggets to grab a 117-113 win Monday night at American Airlines Center.
It was the second loss in three nights on the home floor, where they fell to 2-4 for the season. They now are back under .500 at 8-9, while Denver won for the fifth consecutive time to get to 10-7.
But sometimes, a loss can be a springboard going forward. The Mavericks believe their second half will provide that opportunity.
On the court, it looked like the low blow that Denver’s Jamal Murray delivered to Tim Hardaway Jr.’s groin that got the Mavericks rolling. But what happened at halftime might have longer-lasting impact, said James Johnson, one of the catalysts with 16 points off the bench.
“The turnaround point happened in that locker room at halftime,” Johnson said. “We didn’t leave it up to coach to come in there and really give us the spiel on what’s going on. We know what’s going on. We know what we were doing wrong.
“I think we were able to hold each other accountable and use that as a spark instead of fighting among each other.”
Carlisle said it was a major change from the laissez-faire first half and he credited the players for identifying the areas in need of attention.
“Our spirit as a team was much better in the second half,” he said. “You may not play well in the fourth quarter. But if you’re playing the right way and trying to help each other and moving the ball and helping each other defensively, then you’re giving yourself a chance. We didn’t do that in the first half.”
Carlisle said he wanted to skip straight to the third quarter when he sits down to watch the game film, but knows that would be ignoring the elephant in the room.
“In coaching, you can’t ignore three quarters of the game,” Carlisle said. “But I thought we showed real signs in the second half and we got to build on it.”
So what did the Mavericks learn about themselves?
“Team play. It’s got to be unselfish team play,” Carlisle said. “It doesn’t matter who we put out there. If the ball’s moving and we’re executing and helping each other get shots, that’s going to breed a togetherness on the defensive end and we’ll give ourselves a chance.
“A lot of teams are having issues with injuries, COVID, etc., etc., etc. We’re not going to make excuses. We’ve just got to play better and we’ve got to always play with a pure heart and that’s the biggest thing right now.”
So it’s safe to say that there was some heavy stuff going on internally after the first half.
There also was plenty of other drama.
It started with Hardaway, who got tangled up with Murray with 4:51 left in the third quarter. By then, the Mavericks already had trimmed the 12-point deficit to 80-73.
But after Hardaway bodied Murray, the Denver guard took exception and gave Hardaway a shot below the belt.
Murray was ejected and Hardaway came alive with seven consecutive points and the Mavericks were nip-and-tuck the rest of the way.
But that incident paled to the halftime siren.
“Just playing the game,” Hardaway said. “I guess he was frustrated they didn’t call a foul. I was trying to do the best I can to deny the ball. The rest speaks for itself. It happens in a game. But it doesn’t matter at this point. We lost.”
Despite another monster night by Luka Dončić, who had 35 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds for his sixth triple-double of the season and 31st of his young career.
His matchup with Nikola Jokic featured two of the early season MVP candidates. And they both had their moments. But Jokic got the victory, thanks mostly to 30 points from teammate Michael Porter Jr. He scored all 18 of his second-half points after Murray was ejected.
Carlisle didn’t think the ejection was what got Porter going, however.
“I just thought we made mistakes that allowed him to get open,” he said. “And he’s a great shooter. I think what gets a shooter motivated is getting open for shots, so I would think that that’s probably what motivated him.”
And then, when the Mavericks got themselves in position to win the game, they couldn’t close the deal. But Carlisle was encouraged that they lost while only giving up 25 points in the fourth quarter and 47 in the second half. That was a major improvement on the flimsy first half.
“The fourth quarter, we just didn’t play well enough,” Carlisle said. “We made some mistakes. But instead of giving up 38 and 32, respectively, we gave up 25 and could only score 19. So the second half was a much better picture of the kind of team we want to be, and need to be.”