DALLAS -- After playing seven games in 12 days since Dirk Nowitzki sprained his right knee -- and then Caron Butler was lost for the season -- a three-day break comes at the right time for the Dallas Mavericks to assess where they are, and even who they are.
The Mavs were rolling at 24-5, but they have lost five of seven without Nowitzki as they gear up for a four-game road trip starting at Indiana on Wednesday knowing this much: they are no longer who they thought they were.
They know Butler's edginess and scoring that was trending upward as the season progressed are lost for the season. They know their 7-foot, leading scorer and MVP candidate will be in uniform at some point. Wednesday is possible. Or perhaps Friday at San Antonio. Or neither. The good news is Dallas is 12-2 on the road.
"We’ve just got to find a way to make it work. You've got to take one it one game at time," said Shawn Marion, who has averaged 18.3 points a game since taking over for Butler as the starting small forward. "We’re 26-10...The big fella will be coming back, so that will definitely make us a little deeper and give us another weapon, of course, but there’s more to it than that.
"We’ve got to stay with it, stay after it on both ends of the floor for the whole 48 [minutes]. That’s the main focus on everything, because there’s been some good things out there and some stretches we just lose it."
For a team of veterans, the "we just lose it" proclamation is the most disturbing. Even without Nowitzki and Butler, the Mavs scored 57 points in the first half Saturday against Orlando. That's a season-high for any half. Thursday against Oklahoma City, Dallas scored 55 in the first half. But they couldn't sustain in either game.
The Thunder built a double-digit lead before a late Mavs flurry left them down four when time expired. The Magic used a 23-2 run and led 108-88 before closing out a 117-107 win. After the Mavs led 50-34, Orlando outscored Dallas, 83-57.
"I just think we didn’t play hard," Mavs guard DeShawn Stevenson said. "We let them get in the comfort zone and shoot the 3s like they like, and they made them. They made their run and we didn’t come back."
Stevenson added: "I just think we look at the score, we’re up -- we did that last game [against OKC] -- and we don’t keep the pressure on and got comfortable."
Building and losing big leads has been a theme all season. With a full squad, it would seem a matter of short-circuiting focus. Shorthanded as the Mavs are, it is either a lapse of focus or simply being outgunned against the league's better teams. Or both.
"We've got to continue to do what works and we tend to get away from it," guard Jason Terry said. "We were up 13, 15 [points] and coming into the second half we kind of slowed up. We didn’t do what we did to be successful. We have to look at it and learn from it. But again, we’ve been doing the same thing all year. At some point we’re going to have to get it in our minds that we’re going to get the lead, maintain the lead and get out of there with the win."
As Marion noted, Dallas (26-10) has maintained the second-best record in the Western Conference behind the San Antonio Spurs (30-6) all season. They still hold that slot, but suddenly find themselves closer to fifth-place Oklahoma City and Utah-- both 25-13 -- than first. Entering San Antonio's game tonight against Minnesota, the Spurs lead the Mavs by four games.
Dallas' upcoming logistically challenged road trip starts at Indiana then winds down to San Antonio (Friday), over to Memphis (Saturday) and finally up to Detroit (Jan. 17).
Nowitzki, who stayed off his knee over the weekend, said he hopes to be able to at least partially participate in practice Monday after the team took Sunday off. He's been listed as day-t0-day since going down on Dec. 27, and that's how he remains.
"People don’t give [Nowitzki] enough credit for his defense, but defensively you miss his length. Offensively, you miss the way he spaces out the court," Terry said. "But hopefully he’ll be back this week. We go on the road. We play well on the road. We have to stay positive and definitely win some games here coming up."