For three quarters, Sunday was another struggle for the Mavericks, who seem to love living dangerously so far this season.
But when Luka Dončić, who was on his way to another industrial-strength performance, finally got a little help, the Mavericks made sure there would be no heartbreak on this night.
With Luka looking every bit like the NBA’s leading scorer, which he is, the Mavericks rode his greatness for a while, then got contributions from Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Green to pull away from the Orlando Magic for a 114-105 victory at American Airlines Center.
It wasn’t pretty for the longest time, but the bottom line was just fine as they leveled their record at 3-3 and washed away the stench of Saturday’s exasperating loss.
Dončić had 30 points by halftime, the fourth time he’s had 30 or more in a half in his career, and you figured the Mavericks’ hangover from their previous night’s meltdown was over.
But it wasn’t until they pulled ahead 95-83 early in the fourth quarter that they gained more than a foothold of an advantage. The rest of the way, they simply held the Magic at arm’s length.
The closest Orlando got down the stretch was 102-97 with 4:28 left.
But Luka scored in the paint and the Mavericks got a turnover and a pair of 3-pointers from Dorian Finney-Smith down the stretch to ice it.
Luka finished with 44 points, but Hardaway chipped in 21 and Dinwiddie had 12 to with 13 for Finney-Smith. It was the contributions from Luka’s teammates that made a difference in the second half.
“We didn’t make a long run in the playoffs (last year) for nothing,” Hardaway said. “A lot of guys have knocked down shots, big-time threes. That’s one way of staying prepared, knowing that Luka’s going to go bonkers, but you still got to be ready to deliver. And we did that.”
And, for the sixth time in a row, Luka topped 30 points. This time, he did it in the first half. And it helped erase Saturday’s overtime loss to Oklahoma City, which Luka took blame for.
“From his comments yesterday, you could tell that he was going to come (hard) tonight,” coach Jason Kidd said. “The leadership, the accountability – if you were paying attention to what he was saying, you could tell he was going to be ready to go. And he came out and set the tone.”
Luka said the poor finish to Saturday’s game was a motivation against the Magic.
“We know we didn’t play the way we should last time,,” he said. “The start of the game, we weren’t right. We started bad. We can’t start like that. But we picked it up.”
And as for his absurd scoring run, Luka said he’s certain that he won’t need 30-plus points every night for the Mavericks to be successful.
But it’s nice to know the team can lean on him for that when it has to.
“Some nights, I’m going to get doubled every time,” he said. “There’s different teams, different coaches. I don’t feel like I have to score 30 every night. We have capable players. I don’t think it’s going to be every night.”
But so far, it has been, which made the win a nice recovery from Saturday night, which was still a sensitive topic before Sunday’s game.
Kidd is on a fact-finding mission early in the NBA season, one that he hopes has a finish line sooner than later.
So even though the dreadful loss on Saturday night against Oklahoma City was painful to go through and hard to let go of, it was a chance to learn more about his team.
What works. What doesn’t.
Presumably every nugget of information is going into a vault that will be opened sometime down the line when the Mavericks have forged a true identity – not to mention a true rotation.
“We have some new pieces,” Kidd said. “Those are things that not just as coach, but teammates, that we’re going through. We’re not going to pick up where we left off last season. It’s just not possible.
“We got to go through the grind. We were like this last year. We were shooting it off the side of the backboard last year. This year, we’re putting the ball in the basket, it’s just that our defense has to be a little better. But we have good team, we believe in that locker room and we’re going to get better on this journey.”
The results did not come quickly on Sunday. The Mavericks were behind by double digits in the first quarter and fought from behind for most of the first three quarters.
It was like Saturday’s game was lingering. And by the way, there was no disputing the dreadfulness of Saturday’s game.
According to ESPN, NBA teams were 9,975-1 when leading by 16 points or more in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter over the last 25 years.
Make it 9,975-2 now.
The Mavericks were up 97-81 before an OKC free throw with 3:57 to go. From there, they were outscored 36-14 over the final four minutes of regulation and the five overtime minutes.
So you figured the Mavericks would come back out with a vengeance on Sunday against a one-win Orlando team.
But the Magic caught a hot-shooting night and were frontrunners throughout the first half. And beyond.
That led to a slew of questions for coach Jason Kidd, who amplified on Sunday what this part of the season and his choices on starting (and closing) lineups are all about.
“The roster is what it is and you got to manage that,” he said. “There’s got to be some sacrifice. Guys are going to have to sit or have a rest day for us to have any success. The good teams can do that. Championship teams are able to understand their role and their teammates. And we’re working on that.”
The result so far has been different players mixing and matching at crunch time, which has happened in five of the Mavs’ first six games.
“The more we’re in close games, it’s only going to help us as we go forward,” Kidd said. “Yes, it sucks to lose. But it’s also something you can learn from and draw from. That’s what championship teams have done.
“No one had the Warriors winning it last year. Only they believed that they could win it. They struggled during the season. They had losses. But they learned. We’re one of those teams that it’s a work in progress. It’s hard to win in this league. And it’s hard to be a champion. But you have to be unselfish.”
And so, the fact-finding research continues.
Better now than March or April.
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