A pair of teams with a lot in common met in Atlanta on Wednesday night.
Young, superstar point guards. Solid talent on rosters that are improving. Franchises that have been through dark times during rebuilding projects but are now seeing the dividends.
But there’s another similarity. Both the Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks are trying to learn how to win close games at crunch time.
It’s not always the prettiest process.
One of these teams was going to get it right on Wednesday. Even though the Mavericks had a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, it was a three-point game with 42 seconds to play.
The Mavericks held on for a 122-116 victory to end their six-game losing streak. And it was another reminder that photo finishes are going to be more of the norm and less of the exception for this team. So far, they haven’t been able to master the ability to routinely execute at both ends of the floor in tight situations.
So what does it take to become a team that knows how to do that?
Rick Carlisle pinpointed a few key points before the latest nail-biter.
“You have to experience those situations,” he said. “You have to learn from mistakes. You have to develop an attitude and a desire to take on those challenges and be willing to do anything to succeed, whether it’s a loose-ball play, whether it’s making an extra pass, stepping into a shot, whatever the case may be.”
Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce can relate. His Hawks had trouble closing out a tight game against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday. It’s happened more than once to them, just as it has to the Mavericks.
“I try to pin it on early in the game and portions of the fourth quarter,” Pierce said. “I think everyone thinks you get to the last three minutes and this is when you’re just going to make the plays. We’ll be a better team when we can figure out some of the execution stuff that happens in the course of the game so we’re not in those situations.
“There’s a lot of things we have to do better in the moment, not just rely on making the big shot at the end of the game. That’s a recipe for disaster in my eyes.”
The Mavericks found that out on Monday when they got beat by a 3-pointer from Phoenix’s Devin Booker with 1.5 seconds remaining.
It was another agonizing reminder that you can’t cut corners in the NBA.
“It certainly doesn’t happen overnight,” Carlisle said. “When you’re in a rebuilding situation, these things take time. Both teams (Mavs and Hawks) are learning. Both teams are growing.
“But growth can be painful. And with that pain has to come an added strength, a resolve, with the group. That’s what we’re looking to do. I’m sure that’s what Lloyd’s looking to do with his team.”
Let sleeping dogs lie: Pierce was asked before the game if there was an underrated part of Luka Dončić’s game.
“For me, it’s composure,” the coach said. “I think there was a lot of conversation in the Clipper series (in last season’s playoffs) where they were being physical and roughing him up and I think in the very next game he drops 42 or whatever it was.
“Just composure. You think you’re going to bully him, it actually kind of builds more of his strength, his confidence, his dominance. There are certain guys I try not to even mess with. One of those guys we just played (LeBron James on Monday). If he wants to hang out most of the game, I’m going to let him hang out. I’m not going to wake him up.”
Dončić gets the same sort of treatment, Pierce said.
Getting back in gear: Balancing their need to get newly healthy players back into some sort of rhythm and the absolute desperation the Mavericks had for a win has not been easy.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and, to a lesser degree, Jalen Brunson, all have had to get their legs back after missing extended periods with COVID-19-related absentees.
Said Carlisle: “It’s pretty apparent that there is a huge sense of urgency. The big thing is managing the minutes. I like where (guys) are. The big thing for us is the details. We had a lot of unforced turnovers in the Monday night game. And we had some slippage when we had a lead in the third quarter. We just got to really keep the pedal down and make sure there’s no letup at any time.”
Briefly: Carlisle led off his interview before the game with another passage saluting Black History Month. This one featured vice president Kamala Harris, “the United States’ first female vice president and the highest ranking female elected official in U.S. history. And the first African-American and first Asian-American vice president – a pretty amazing record and pretty amazing accomplishments . . . The Mavericks were scheduled to head directly back to Dallas after Wednesday’s game and they start a two-game set against Golden State on Thursday (6:30 p.m. start, TNT).