The Mavericks still have legitimate hopes of running with the big dogs this season.

To do so, they have to take care of the little yip-yap pups first and Monday was a nice move in that direction.

The only team below the Mavericks in the Western Conference standings came to American Airlines Center, along with 1,500 essential workers who were the first fans this season to see a game in person.

They were treated to a 127-122 Mavericks’ victory that got a little hairy at the end, but still represented progress for a team that is hoping this stretch of seven home games is a turning point in their season.

It was particularly gratifying to do it in front of the scattering of fans.

“It was amazing,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who had 25 points off the bench. “The atmosphere was obviously better.

“You just hear crickets when there’s nobody in there.”

On Monday, there were enough fans to make noise. The Mavericks made sure that the first fans back at games would be healthcare workers and other frontline medical personnel. And social distancing was no problem as everybody could spread out in 19,200-seat AAC.

It was a great way to start the second third of the shortened NBA season. The first 24 games of the 72-game schedule left plenty to be desired. But the Mavericks continue to get provide glimpses that they are making headways.

They tore out to a 21-point lead after scoring a season-high 43 points in the first quarter. The lead topped out at 25 points, but the Mavericks squandered most of that, finding themselves up just 123-120 with 50 seconds left.

Josh Richardson made a shot in the paint and two free throws in the closing seconds to prevent the Wolves from getting a chance to tie or take a lead.

It was the Mavericks’ second win in a row and third in the past four games.

“Right now, we got to do whatever we can to win games,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s certainly not always going to be pretty. But it’s important to win them and learn and move on and get better.

“Each day, we hope that we’re another step closer to being back to the team that we want to be.”

Such a journey doesn’t happen overnight. The Mavericks improved to 11-14 and while they still have a long way to go to get back to respectability, they built some strong collateral on Monday in the form of Kristaps Porzingis.

The big man was assertive from the start, had 15 points in the first quarter and finished with 27, along with 13 rebounds, six blocked shots and four assists. He hit four of seven shots from 3-point range.

But it was the six rejections that got everybody’s attention.

“One of those nights where I’m guarding a five, he was around the rim and I was able to protect the rim pretty well,” Porzingis said. “Just try to stay vertical and not foul and get those blocks.”

Said Carlisle when asked what he liked about Porzingis’ play: “Everything. He was making shots and moving the ball beautifully. And rolling and cutting beautifully, which opened up other guys, a real positive thing.

“It’s clear that as each game goes on, everything is getting better and more the way he wants it and more the way we want it.”

Porzingis had said last week that he wanted longer stretches on the court, particularly early in games. For the first few weeks he came back from knee surgery, he was playing shorter bursts of minutes.

That’s changed the last couple games.

What’s also changed is the way Luka Dončić is being utilized. He has been exiting the last few games at the first timeout of the game rather than playing all (or most) of the first quarter before taking a breather.

“It’s just a different way to monitor my minutes,” he said. “Maybe keep me fresh at the end of games. So I think it’s good for me.”

It worked well against the Wolves. Dončić was not having a stellar game by his standards through three quarters, but in the fourth, he had 14 points and finished with 26, just keeping his streak of 25-point games going. It’s now at 11.

He almost was outdone by Malik Beasley, who had 22 fourth-quarter points to lead Minnesota’s comeback. But the Mavericks persevered at the end, even if they had to sweat a bit more than they wanted.

Twitter: @ESefko

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