DALLAS – Although the losses unfortunately kept piling up for the Dallas Mavericks this year, forward Dirk Nowitzki and his teammates noticed something completely different about the 2017-’18 season. Something that should give Mavs fans some hope.

The Mavs were in a lot more ballgames this season when they won 24 games than they were last season when they won 33 games.

During the 2016-’17 season, the Mavs lost 10 games by six points or less and another five by seven points. This year the Mavs suffered 23 losses by six points or less and an additional 11 games by seven points.

By that synopsis, the Mavs believe they are much closer to earning a playoff berth than some may think. They’re confident that a few tweaks here and there — a loose ball bouncing their way or a favorable call or two landing in their hip pocket – could do the trick.

Nowitzki said that notion wasn’t lost on coach Rick Carlisle in his message to the team during the season.

“A couple of times Rick mentioned, ‘You know, it seems like you’re so far away with wins and losses, but in reality you’re really not that far away,’ “ Nowitzki told Mavs.com. “ ‘So just keep on plugging, keep getting better and see if we can turn some of those losses into wins,’ and that’s the goal for next year.

“Be smarter down the stretch, get a few more stops – that’s always big – get the ball obviously in the right people’s hands down the stretch. It’s a game of inches, and especially in close games if you make some mistakes here and there, or you miss one rotation, it could cost you the game.”

Nowitzki believes the lessons the Mavs learned during the past two difficult seasons should serve as a teaching tool for next season. He also believes with a little more attention to detail – plus the addition of some more quality talent – the Mavs should be able to flip their share of close losses into victories.

“We’re going to have a little more experience down the stretch now since we just went through two years where there were a lot of close games,” Nowitzki said. “So hopefully we learned from it and can turn some of those losses into wins, and I think we can still be right there fighting for the playoffs and hopefully enjoying that run.”

Last year leading up to the NBA Draft, Nowitzki spoke up about his desire for the Mavs to select a point guard. Management listened to their franchise player and used the No. 9 overall pick to draft North Caroline State point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists as a rookie and was so productive that he has quickly worked his way into being one of the cornerstones to the Mavs’ future. And rightfully so, considering Smith has that bulldog mentality needed at the most critical position on the basketball court.

“Dennis is so important for us from the perspective of on-court play, of course, but I believe he has the wiring to be a great leader as well,” Carlisle said. “You don’t become a playoff team from a 24-win team without great leadership, and so he’s going to have to continue to develop as a leader.

“He’s shown great signs, along with Harrison Barnes and (Dwight) Powell. Dirk and (J.J.) Barea go without saying, because they’ve been here and they’re championship players for the Mavericks, but that new young nucleus core has got to continue to get momentum and make progress.”

Nowitzki himself has made significant progress after he underwent surgical debridement of his left ankle on Apr. 5. He’s finally walking without a walking boot and hopes to be in tip-top shape by the time training camp starts so he can help the Mavs turn some of those close losses into wins.

“Hopefully I can still contribute, hopefully we’ll win a few more games,” said Nowitzki, who turns 40 on June 19. “I think that’s obviously wearing on the team and on the franchise a little bit.

“The mood every day when you come in here after all these tough home losses that you’re sitting on, that’s not fun even though I know the end is coming soon. So even in that I try to find joy in the grind and in the ups and downs of a season like that. I still try to find enjoyment and keep the guys positive, even though it’s hard at times.”

Particularly with all those close losses.

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