The playoffs, for all practical purposes, have already started for the NBA.

Maybe not officially. But when it comes to hard lessons learned, Friday night’s overtime loss to Houston was a brutal reminder that the Mavericks still have lots to learn, especially when it comes to executing in crunch time when the stakes are higher.

Late-game savvy was a problem before the season was interrupted. And it remained a problem as they lost a seven-point lead in the final minute and got beat 153-149 by the Rockets in their first game back after 4½ months sidelined by the coronavirus.

But while they had difficulties running the offense and blocking out on a free throw that allowed Robert Covington to force overtime with a tip-in, their leader was taking responsibility for the tough loss to the team directly in front of them in the Western Conference standings.

Luka Doncic also said this will help the Mavericks in the long run.

“We’re a young team,” Doncic said. “We got a lot to learn. We’ll get better, for sure. I know we’re going to get it together when it matters most in the playoffs. So I’m not worried about that.”

NBA players must have short memories, because this clearly was a colossal blown opportunity. The Mavericks were up by seven points with less than a minute to play and let it get away. They also appeared to be gassed by the end.

Doncic, however, could only focus on his problem areas – mainly 1-for-9 shooting from 3-point range.

“We had some bad luck,” he said. “I got to do way better than I played. I can’t be 1-for-9, so I got to be way better.”

Hard to fault him for that when he had his 15th triple double of the season with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.

Showing support: The Mavericks and Rockets joined together to kneel during the national anthem before the game.

The Mavericks elected to have the word “Equality” on the back of their jerseys, and it was written in the home language of international players like Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and J.J. Barea.

“It was great,” said Tim Hardaway Jr said of the gestures. “I think we’re one of the few teams that has multiple guys from different countries. It’s only right to wear equality on our jerseys basically just because, like I said, these are tough times and we’re all in this together.”

As for the kneeling, he said: “It was was breathtaking and a moment that was very heartfelt and I’m happy that both teams came together and the NBA has come together and is using this platform to voice our opinions and make sure the world can hear us.”

Hardaway, by the way, had a huge night with 24 points, hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers.

Playing for fans: The Mavericks, along with the other teams in the bubble, have a profound understanding that fans have been thirsting for entertainment, particularly sports.

They know that Mavericks fans are pulling for them every second of the way, even though they can’t be there for the live games. If it gets minds off of the coronavirus and so many other world problems, that’s what the Mavericks want to offer.

“We all have contact with our families every day,” Carlisle said. “I believe most of us are aware of the (COVID-19) numbers in the Dallas area. They’re still high.

“Really everything we’ve done here . . . has been all about keeping our fans excited, keeping them engaged, keeping them interested in what we’re doing. We’re looking forward to it. I do think there’s an awareness and we have great empathy. It’s a very tough situation, not only in Dallas but a lot of areas around the country.”

The Mavericks’ opener in the eight-game season was nationally televised on ESPN, which increased the number of people in Dallas that could watch it. It also was shown on Fox Sports Southwest.

Comparing the greats: Before Friday’s game, Carlisle was asked about James Harden’s prolific scoring ability and how it compared to another decent scorer of the past, Michael Jordan.

Carlisle, who spent some time trying to guard Jordan back in the day, said there are, indeed, some similarities.

“The game looked different back in those days,” he said. “But I have no doubt that if Jordan was playing today that his game could look anyway he wanted it to look in terms of being able to score and do what’s necessary to win games.”

And as for Harden, who pounded the Mavericks with 49 points and is a runaway leader in scoring this season at more than 34 points per game, Carlisle said: “Pound for pound, Harden’s one of the best scorers in the history of basketball, up there with all the greats. You look at the number of points he’s averaging, it’s breathtaking what he’s done the last couple years.”

Twitter: @ESefko

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