If the Dallas Mavericks don’t move up in the Western Conference standings during the restart of the NBA season, they may look back at what happened Friday night as the reason why.

They had the Rockets in the crosshairs most of the second half at The Arena in Orlando. But when the Mavs eased up and couldn’t find the bucket during the final seven minutes of regulation, the Rockets rallied to dig out a wild 153-149 victory in overtime.

With the loss, the Mavs (40-28) dropped four games behind the Rockets (41-24) in the loss column with just seven regular season games remaining.

“I just know that this is a tough loss,“ coach Rick Carlisle said. “This is about as tough as it gets, and it just comes down to basic execution.”

The Mavs were clinging to a two-point lead with Seth Curry at the free throw line and only 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation. But Curry, an 84.1 percent free throw shooter, split the two charity tosses, leaving the Mavs with a 139-136 lead.

From there, the Mavs intentionally fouled James Harden before he could hoist up a 3-pointer, thus sending him to the line. Harden made the first free throw, and after he missed the second one, somehow Robert Covington wiggled his way from one side of the basket to the other and tipped in the errant shot to stunningly tie the game at 139-139 with 3.3 seconds left and effectively send it into overtime.

“The free throw block-out was a big culprit,” Carlisle said. “We missed free throws down the stretch – that was a culprit.

“NBA games, they’re going to get more grinding as the game goes on, and Houston made some plays. Give them credit. They made some amazing plays.”

In this free-wheeling game where defense took the night off, the Mavs were nursing a seemingly comfortable 131-120 lead with 7:07 to go in regulation after Dorian Finney-Smith buried a 3-point shot. But the Mavs’ offense went on ice after that, and the Rockets made them pay down the stretch.

“I think we should have stayed probably just more offensive-minded the way we were the whole game,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who finished with a season-high 39 points and 16 rebounds. “At the end we kind of tried to slow it down, and their pressure was up obviously.

“And we tried to slow it to down and kind of just cruise and win the game – or maybe not to lose the game. That was maybe our mindset a little bit. We just have to go out there and keep playing aggressively and attack. Obviously, we still had many chances to win the game.”

Guard Trey Burke certainly gave the Mavs a big lift off the bench and kept them balanced with one big shot after another. Signed as a replacement player earlier this month, Burke fired in a season-high 31 points and was 11-of-16 from the field and 8-of-10 from 3-point range.

“I don’t think I surprised myself,” said Burke, who had 19 of his points in the first half which ended with the Mavs ahead, 85-80. It was the highest scoring half in an NBA game in 20 years and were the most points the Mavs scored in a half this season.

“My teammates and the coaching staff really was on me about being myself when I got out there on the court,” Burke said. “That’s why they brought me back is to play-make. That doesn’t necessarily mean always be aggressive for my own shot.

“But they know that one of my strengths is breaking the defense down, getting in the paint and making a play for myself or others, so I just tried to do that. I know this was a big game. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win, but I think it was a wake-up call going to the next game.”

Luka Doncic collected his NBA-leading 15th triple-double of the season as he finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists before fouling out with 28.3 seconds remaining in regulation and the Mavs down five points. Also, Tim Hardaway Jr. tossed in 24 points for the Mavs.

“I’ll take full responsibility for the loss,” Carlisle said. “I want to keep the pressure off the players.

“They really played their butts off. But we were unable to make a few key plays that we needed to make.”

James Harden led the Rockets with 49 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, Russell Westbrook finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, and Danuel House Jr. tallied 20 points.

This was the Mavs’ first game since March 11 when the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. And their offense looked crisp before bogging down and producing just eight points over the final seven minutes in regulation play.

And defensively, Harden managed to slip by the Mavs for 23 points in the first quarter. However, despite that scoring outburst by Harden, the game was tied at 42-42 after the first quarter.

“I still think we can still work to be a better defensive team even when there’s guys like Harden and Westbrook out there,” Carlisle said. “We just got to decide that that’s the most important thing.

“And then a lot of the stuff comes down to details.”

The Mavs shot 47.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point territory, but missed 10 of their 38 free throw attempts. For now, the Mavs will try and regroup when they play the Phoenix Suns on Sunday at 8 p.m.

“This one obviously is a great loss for us,” Porzingis said. “We’re going to have to look at the film and see what we could have done better at the end to close out the game, and that’s it. I feel like we have to find the positive in this tough loss that we have and try to learn from it, but that was a fun game.

“That was a physical game, that was a fun night and it felt more like a playoff game, so it was a great experience for us and that’s a weird team to play against. The way they play and the way we have to defend them is completely different from any other team. It’s a great lesson for us to learn from and hopefully not make those same mistakes at the end in the following games.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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