There were too many occasions last season when the Dallas Mavericks ultimately found themselves on the short end of a close, knock-down, drag-out game like the one they were involved in Friday night against San Antonio.
But that was then, and this is now.
The Mavs nearly blew an 18-point lead, but instead showed the poise that has become part of their mantra this season as they held on to edge the Spurs, 122-117, at AT&T Center. The victory against their Interstate-35 rivals padded the Mavs’ record to 8-7 going into Saturday’s 8 p.m. home game against the Houston Rockets, while the Spurs dropped to 8-8.
The pesky Spurs kept chipping away in the second half until DeMar DeRozan split a pair of free throws as San Antonio closed to within 113-112 with 1:03 left in the game.
However, the Mavs got a key short bank shot from Luka Doncic, and then Doncic found Jalen Brunson in the corner for a huge 3-pointer that padded Dallas’ lead to 118-112 with 18 seconds remaining. The clutch baskets by Doncic and Brunson showed just how far the Mavs have come in key situations over the past year.
“I like how the Spurs made a run at the end of the game and we easily could have folded and let the them come back and take a win at home,” said Brunson, who scored 16 points. “I think if this was the (Mavs’) team last year, that maybe would have happened, but we’re growing.
“I see that one way that we’re growing and becoming better is by making key plays at the end of the game in order to win games.”
Those key plays included a pair of successful free throws by Kristaps Porzingis after Rudy Gay sliced the Mavs’ lead to 118-115. And two more free throws by Wes Iwundu to close out the scoring.
“We’ve gotten a year older and a year wiser,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We spent more time working on crunch time situations, talking about it, understanding that if that’s a big part of where we want to go as a team we need to execute and keep our poise.
“But the biggest thing was we really just kept our cool. Luka kept guys together in the huddles and we found a way to execute and get enough stops to get it done, and the big free throws at the end were huge.”
Doncic, who finished with 36 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists, echoed Brunson and Carlisle about how the Mavs have grown over the past season, and how they are making big-time plays this season that weren’t part of their repertoire last season.
“The biggest thing is we’re making better decisions,” Doncic said. “I think we’re giving up some good shots for a better shot. I think that’s the key to our end of the game.”
Forward Tim Hardaway Jr. said he likes the way the Mavs are battling even though they’re without Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson, Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber – all of whom are in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
“We’re just a lot of men down, so every possession counts and it’s great to have these times and these moments just to keep on building and try to hold down the fort until those guys get back,” said Hardaway, who tallied 21 points. “Just staying locked in, not hanging your head on a turnover, and getting back on defense and (knowing) every possession counts and just trying to get the stop and good things will happen.
“Last season definitely played a big role in knowing how to finish games down the stretch now.”
Porzingis was locked in with 21 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, and was 7-of-14 from the field and 3-of-5 from beyond the 3-point arc. And when Porzingis occasionally got down on the low block and scored, Carlisle said: “Luka called those post-up plays in the flow of the game. He felt that (Porzingis) needed a touch against a smaller guy.
“KP made some very good decisions. He got a bucket or two. Look, in the flow of the game when it’s our leader out there making the call, I’m good with it.”
And when Doncic passed the ball to Brunson for that critical late-game 3-pointer, Carlisle said: “It’s clear that Luka has great trust in his teammates. In those situations (Doncic) made the right basketball play, got the ball to his teammates and his teammates were stepping into shots with force and confidence.
“In those situations you’re not going to make every single shot. But it’s a process thing and the belief in each other and the trust that you have in each other on the floor is the glue that makes teams that are developing teams good, and good teams contending teams. So we’ve got to keep fostering more of that, but that was a play that’s a keeper.”
Also a “keeper” was the play of Iwundu, who won the Mavs’ newly-minted Defensive Player of the Game award.
Carlisle said it was a win the Mavs needed as they improved to 2-0 against Southwest Division foes, while the Spurs fell to 2-3.
“Tiebreakers are going to go into account in the Western Conference,” Brunson said. “Obviously we have a very tough division and conference, so everything matters. We’re just lucky enough to make a couple of key plays at the end of the game to get a win.”
The Mavs shot 48.4 percent from the field and only committed five turnovers. It’s the fewest turnovers any team has committed against the Spurs this season.
“I thought we played very well offensively just about the whole night,” Carlisle said. “Brunson hit a big shot and the little bank shot that Luka hit obviously was a huge one as well. But again, the thing I love tonight was positive body language throughout the game.
“NBA games aren’t perfect. There are thousands of events that go on in NBA games. There are officials’ calls that you don’t agree with, there are physical plays, there are missed shots and turnovers and other adversities. The guys did a real good job of just sticking together and sticking to it.”