Playing to maintain their one-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Dallas got off to a blazing hot start, jumping out to a 30-point lead in the game's first 16 minutes.
But the much-maligned Dallas defense could not hold down the Blazers for long. Portland stormed back to take a four-point lead before the end of the third quarter. Suddenly, the Mavericks were on the verge of matching their infamous feat of Dec. 6, 2002, when they lost at the Los Angeles Lakers 105-103 after leading 66-36 early in the third quarter.
These are the moments that can define seasons—when a golden opportunity is snatched from the grasp. The bad teams teams give in to doubt and despair, acquiescing to defeat long before the game clock has run out.
While the Dallas Mavericks may not be a great team, they are certainly not a team that is going to quit that easily. Dallas took back a slim lead by the end of the third, then held off several more Portland rallies before an and-one layup from veteran guard Devin Harris put them on top for good.
Dallas' 103-98 win was far from pretty, but the league does not give out style points. The Mavericks survived, which gives them a better chance to advance to the postseason.
Dallas displayed an impressive two-way game in the first quarter, torching the Blazers for 33 points while holding them to only 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Point guard Jose Calderon outscored the entire Portland team by himself, with 15 first-quarter points.
By the eight-minute, 30-second mark of the second quarter Dallas had stretched that lead to a seemingly insurmountable 44-14 on a layup by Devin Harris.
How rare is it for a team to blow a 30-point first-half lead? According to ESPN Stats, it had not been done in 15 years:
But the Blazers were only getting started. They quickly got back into the game by exploiting one of Dallas' most critical weaknesses: rebounding. Per Basketball-Reference, the Mavericks came into Friday ranked 23rd in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and 24th in defensive rebounding percentage. The Blazers—ranked second in offensive rebounding percentage—took full advantage, grabbing seven offensive boards in the second quarter alone.
Reserve forward Thomas Robinson in particular destroyed the Mavericks on the offensive glass, pulling down four offensive boards and scoring nine points in the second quarter; to put that into perspective, he averages 4.4 points per game.
By halftime they had closed the lead to 19—difficult, but not impossible to overcome.
Portland would take every bit of that lead back in the third, thanks to the Mavericks' shoddy defense and rebounding. Dallas did not have an answer for All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 18 points and grabbed nine boards in the period (three offensive).
The best thing the Mavericks can take away from this win is the performance of their veteran bench players, particularly Harris.
Dallas has always been one of the rare teams that doesn't necessarily like to play all five starters when the game is on the line, particularly since they are blessed with a proven Vince Carter available on the bench. But they would not have won this game if they had only relied on their top two scorers: Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.
Both players struggled in the fourth, combining for only seven points on 1-of-6 shooting. Fortunately, they had Carter (six points) and Harris (10 points, including the game-winner) to pick up the slack.
They Are Who They Are
After the victory, several of the Mavericks seemed to be resigned to playing games in which they blow leads. Coach Rick Carlisle spoke as if the astonishing plot of Friday's win has become little more than a tired routine, per the Associated Press (h/t to ESPN.com):
How many whatever-point leads have we blown this year? There's been tons of them. We've got to work to prevent it. There's no harder way to do it than what happened tonight.
Such is the life of a team with an elite offense and wretched defense. If anything, Friday's results were to be expected from a matchup of similar teams; Portland, like Dallas, relies almost solely on scoring to win. When one team gets hot, they can run out to a huge lead but when they can't get stops the opponent can come back just as quickly.
Prior to Friday's game, ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon wrote an interesting piece of what, if anything, Dallas can do to fix its defense:
The Mavs have known since the roster was constructed this summer that it’d be a challenge to be decent defensively. It’s no surprise that they rank 23rd in defensive rating (105.9 points per game), above only teams that are battling for lottery ping pong balls. That rating soars to 113.7 during Dallas’ three-game losing streak.
The Mavs have to work hard to be average defensively. When they don’t work hard, to use Nowitzki’s words, they can get torched by anybody.
The schizophrenic nature of this team is why they only appear to be just good enough to sneak into the playoffs. If the Mavericks want to ensure their place in the 2014 postseason—or even make a bit of noise once they get there—they must finally learn to work hard and consistently on their defense and rebounding.
* All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.