As the Mavericks fell behind by as much as 21 points in the third quarter against an outmanned opponent, disgruntled fans at American Airlines Center began booing the home team.

It was a little late, coach Jason Kidd said.

“We should have been booed in the first quarter – just (for) the effort and the play,” he said. “They have a right, they paid to see a better show and it wasn’t there until the second half. We can’t come out like that, especially this time of year.”

The Mavericks had arguably their poorest performance of the past two seasons as they lost 117-109 to the Charlotte Hornets – a team that had lost in New Orleans the night before, scored just 96 points in that game, has the worst offensive rating in the NBA and was missing three of its best players.

To qualify this is an inexcusable loss would not be a reach.

“It was awful,” Kidd said when asked about the first-half effort, when the Mavericks gave up 69 points, 37 in the first quarter. “To talk before the game of what we’re playing for, playoffs or championship and to come out . . . in that first quarter and give up 37, the interest level wasn’t high. It was disappointing.

“At halftime, we talked about it. We put ourselves in a better position, but in the second half you got to be flawless. Every possession means something.”

The massive fallout of the loss includes dropping to 36-38 with eight games left. The Mavericks had started the day tied with four other teams for eighth in the Western Conference.

They needed a good push to have a chance to avoid the play-in tournament. Now, they’ll need that same push just to make sure they are part of the play-in tournament among teams that finish seventh through 10th in each conference.

Missing the playoffs altogether remains a possibility that the Mavericks would rather not think about.

And a hard look in the mirror by everybody is probably needed, including the superstar point guard who agreed with Kidd that the effort wasn’t where it needed to be.

“We got to fight harder and play harder,” said Luka Dončić, who piled up 34 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but was 2-of-9 from three-point range and had five turnovers. “We got to show we care. And it starts with me first. We’ve got to believe this team can play better, play harder.”

Asked if the boos were deserved, he said: “Probably, yeah. This season hasn’t been what we thought it was going to be,” he said. “We’ve still got time to make it up.”

Winning games is the only formula, he said, but it’s been a down stretch for not only the team but also Luka, he said.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes, I don’t feel (like) me. I’m just being out there. I used to have fun smiling on the court. But it’s been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”

The Hornets, who got 28 points from P.J. Washington and 25 from Gordon Hayward, sit at 24-51 and the teams will have a rematch Sunday afternoon in Charlotte. It can’t get here quick enough.

Friday was a regrettable game throughout, even if the Mavericks rallied from 21 points down in the third quarter and from 11 points behind in the final two minutes to make things interesting in the final seconds.

They never took a lead, however. They were only down 97-96 before the Hornets scored 10 consecutive points. Their lead remained 114-103 in the final two minutes.

The Mavericks scored six quick points, but when former Mav draftee Dennis Smith Jr. nailed a three-pointer with 13.7 seconds left, the Hornets were home free.

The Mavericks welcomed back Kyrie Irving (18 points, nine rebounds) from a right foot injury, but they were never fully engaged at the defensive end of the court.

A first half that produced nothing but anxious and perhaps disenchanted fans at AAC gave way to a more spirited stretch of basketball for the Mavericks. But it wasn’t enough.

About the only bright spot is that Dončić and Irving were back in the flow together. It had been since March 8 that they had been in a game together.

“The last couple days have been good for the two of them to work on the floor together,” Kidd said. “It’s been a little time. But there’s no better time than tonight to get those two back on the floor again. We understand the position we’re in. We got to have those guys healthy if want to make a run.”

Then again, Kidd knows it doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger. It takes time for new teammates to mesh. And they haven’t had a lot of that time together.

Now, it’s running short.

“The last couple days, they’re working together – you can see that the relationship is growing,” Kidd said. “The best thing is that this is Luka’s team and he (Irving) wants to have Luka out there and lead us and he’s going to follow and help in any way to help us win. And that’s a cool thing when you talk about Kai’s abilities, because he can take over a game at any time. But just understanding Luka’s our leader and we go with Luka.”

The Hornets were on the second night of back-to-back games, having been swatted 115-96 in New Orleans on Thursday. In that game, they finished with only seven available players because of injuries.

But they started Friday with 11 available bodies after summoning some extras from their G-League team.

By the end, the Hornets bore no resemblance to the team that is last in the NBA in offensive rating and was missing its top three scorers: Kelly Oubre, Terry Rozier and Lonzo Ball.

Briefly: The Mavericks informed the NBA that they would protest the result of Wednesday’s 127-125 loss to Golden State for the events surrounding the confusing possession with just under two minutes left in the third quarter. The Mavericks have five days to compile their evidence and submit it to the NBA . . . It probably came as no surprise to Dončić when he was fined $35,000 for his “money gesture” at the end of Wednesday’s game. The technical explanation from the league was that he made an “inappropriate and unprofessional gesture toward a game official.” . . . The Mavericks were without Tim Hardaway Jr., who was out with the flu, Kidd said.

Twitter: @ESefko

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