To argue that Rick Carlisle was disappointed in the aftermath of the Mavericks’ setback to the Rockets the other day would be an understatement. It wasn’t simply that his charges snatched defeat from the throes of victory. It was that they did so in a manner all too familiar to him: with an offense — otherwise the most efficient by far in league history — cratering to alarming proportions and therefore unable to prop up a middling defense. For some reason, they keep tightening up late in close contests, leading to them being outscored by a whopping 16 points per 100 possessions in the crunch. And they did so anew in their first seeding game; they were up by 11 to start the fourth quarter, by as much as 13 at one point, and by seven with 45.2 ticks left — and they still lost.
To be fair, Carlisle was all too ready to own up to his missteps following the debacle. Even as he admitted that “this is a tough loss, as tough as it gets,” he saw fit to “take full responsibility … I want to keep the pressure off the players.” And, in some ways, he’s right. For instance, he kept Trey Burke — who hitherto torched the Rockets for 31 markers (on 11-of-16 shooting from the field, eight of 10 from deep) and six dimes — glued to the bench in the last 10 minutes of regulation despite their inability to puncture the hoop and evident need of his scoring.
Bottom line, the Mavericks have no one to blame but themselves for their poor execution in the payoff period. And it goes beyond their botching free throws and putting up only 20 after previously posting 43, 43, and 34. Rather, it’s in their capacity to stick to fundamentals while in the midst of pressure and threatened by fatigue. Heck, they couldn’t even box out properly in the last free throw attempt of the final canto. Up by two with 3.9 ticks left, all they had to do was claim the rebound off a possible miss and thereby ensure the triumph. Instead, they allowed the Rockets’ Robert Covington to tip in a James Harden miss, tying the game and, after a Luka Doncic airball, sending it to overtime.
Under the circumstances, Carlisle would have had ample cause to lash out. Instead, he preached patience and understanding, no doubt in acceptance of the relative youth and inexperience of his roster. As top dog Doncic noted, “We’re a young team. We’ve got a lot to learn.” Considering that they’re battling for playoff position, however, they need to do so quickly. Bowing to the Rockets, whom they were trying to overtake for the sixth seed in the West, was particularly damaging to the cause; staying seventh would consign them to a first-round matchup with the superior Clippers.
What’s done is done, though, and the Mavericks have no choice but to plod on. Doncic was defiant in claiming that “I know we’re going to get together when it matters most.” And, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, perhaps he’s on the mark in his assessment. After all, they do have the tools to succeed — with top-shelf mentoring and complementary personnel around him. Meanwhile, all and sundry are hoping he’ll make good on his promise sooner rather than later. The talk may be good, but the walk is what matters.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.