When the Dallas Mavericks clinched a playoff spot Sunday for the first time since 2016, they didn’t all gather around a table and celebrate with some fancy seafood dinners. To a man, the Mavs admit they have some bigger fish to fry.
Granted, no one probably would have blamed the Mavs if they would eaten up all the pomp and circumstance that go with earning a playoff berth. Especially since the majority of the so-called experts didn’t have the Mavs as a playoff participant before this season started last October.
However, coach Rick Carlisle stopped short of saying “I told you so” during a Zoom press conference on Monday.
“It’s a very good accomplishment,” Carlisle said of the Mavs’ 16th playoff appearance over the last 20 seasons. “The team has performed much better than people expected overall, so there’s something to feel good about there.
“But we came here to try to move up and try to play well.”
Of course, the Mavs would be feeling much better about themselves if the outcome of the two games they’ve played thus far in the restart of the season would have been better.
They were up by 14 points on Houston on Friday, but eventually fell to the Rockets, 153-149 in overtime. And on Sunday the Mavs had a 15-point lead over Phoenix, but wound up dropping a 117-115 decision.
Those heartbreaking losses knocked some of the luster off of any celebrations taking place on the Mavs’ part. Still, when the NBA playoffs start on Aug. 17, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Justin Jackson, Antonius Cleveland and Josh Reaves are all on the long list of Mavs who will have their playoff tickets punched for the first time in their NBA career.
“Obviously everybody is super excited that we clinched a playoff spot,” Kleber said. “At the same time we’re kind of sad that we lost the first two games because we should have won them.
“But the main focus for us is to get better, fix those problems and get ready for the playoffs, of course.”
For the Mavs, “those problems” are detail stuff that steadily grew into massive issues which wound up costing them the games against the Rockets and Suns. The Mavs led the Rockets by two points with Seth Curry – an 84 percent free throw shooter – at the line for a pair of shots with just 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation play.
Curry, however, split those free throws, leaving the Mavs ahead, 139-136, and opening the door for the Rockets to send the game into overtime with a 3-pointer. Then the Mavs played the odds and made the proper calculated move to intentionally foul Rockets guard James Harden before he could attempt a 3-point shot.
Harden made the first free throw and missed the second one. But Robert Covington miraculously zoomed past Kleber and darted from the right side of the free throw line to the left side to athletically tip-in the missed free throw and send the game into overtime.
Something similar occurred Sunday when the Mavs were outscored by Phoenix, 36-19, in the third quarter. And most of that came when the Suns’ two best players – Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton – were on the bench for over the last seven minutes of the third quarter with each nursing five fouls.
“In terms of doing the little things, that’s really what it’s all about,” Carlisle said. “Ironically in the first game we had a big deficit in number of layups. Houston bombed us in the layup department. We didn’t shoot free throws well (and) we turned it over a lot.
“(Sunday) night we were dominant in the layup area, our turnovers were down and we were almost 90 percent from the free throw line. ”
But the results wound up being the same in both games.
“Our guys are really trying to do the things that we need to do,” Carlisle said. “We had a really bad quarter in the third (against the Suns).
“It started out poorly, it snowballed and we lost the lead. Phoenix got going and it made for a very disappointing outcome.”
With six games remaining in the seeding games before the playoffs start, the Mavs aren’t about to push any panic buttons. They know they have to stop having those unfortunate lulls that cost them the games against the Rockets and Suns, and they know they need to learn how to effectively close a game.
“I think it’s too early to call it an emergency situation,” Kleber said.
Reserve guard Delon Wright said the bench, which collectively outscored the Rockets and Suns, 71-70, has played solid. And he basically added that the Mavs win and lose as a team.
“I think we can obviously play better,” Wright said. “We haven’t won (in the bubble), so it can be the starters, it can be the bench. Everybody has to play better.
“We’re not just in as a unit together. It’s always a mix and match. I feel like as a group we can do better. There’s always room for improvement, even for myself individually.”
Kleber said the Mavs must make it their business to a better job of pumping each other up.
“I think we can do better, especially when it comes to energy and pushing each other up,” Kleber said. “It starts when the game starts and the first five is out there — supporting your teammates more from the bench.”
While the two losses in Orlando have been difficult, Carlisle noted that he has honest discussions with his team about what led to the Mavs coming out on the short end of the stick in both of those games.
The Mavs hope to start doing better starting with Tuesday’s 1:30 p.m. contest against the Sacramento Kings. And the No. 7-seeded Mavs (40-29) also are only two-and-a-half games behind the No. 6-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder (41-25) in the all-important race to avoid playing the powerful Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve played well in stretches, but we want to play better,” Carlisle said. “We need this experience of playing these competitive seeding games, and the playoff experience is something that’s going to be very important to us as well.
“It seems like (the playoffs are) a ways away with six games left in the seedings. But we’re happy to be back and we don’t take it lightly.”