NEWARK, N.J. -- The body bumps and bear hugs were pure emotion, adulation and relief, a spontaneous and genuine reaction to Saturday's 87-86 squeaker against the woeful New Jersey Nets.
Perhaps a month ago, such a precarious victory over an inferior opponent might have elicited a head shake and a sense of dissatisfaction in the locker room.
These days nothing comes easy for the Dallas Mavericks, who are trying to rediscover their identity and rebuild their confidence after injuries and illness threw this season into a mighty tailspin. They are taking nothing for granted, simply trying to survive their most challenging stretch as the offense grinds and sputters, and their defense dips in and out of extended power outages.
"I felt like when I was out and Caron Butler was out we didn’t really have a pep in our step. That swagger we had got lost there," said Dirk Nowitzki, who shed an awful shooting night (7-of-24) by rolling in the game-winner with six seconds to play. "In this league you’ve got to work for everything now. Teams are too good, you can’t just show up and get wins, especially on the road. We have to fight to get this back on track. We’ve got to fight for every possession, play every possession hard on both ends of the floor and that’s how you get it back. That’s how you work yourself back in it."
Mavs owner Mark Cuban perhaps put the state of his team, now 28-15 after a grueling stretch of 10 losses in 14 games -- the optimist will say two wins in the last three games -- in proper perspective.
"This is kind of like a preseason for us," Cuban said. "We’re trying to regroup and get better, and that’s what we’ve got to do. Dirk’s obviously not full strength yet. His knee is fine, but whatever explosiveness he has left, he’s got to get some of that back and that’s just not there. That comes with time."
Considering the brutality of this stretch in which the Mavs have played of 11 of 17 games on the road, have not been able to muster as many as 90 points in six of the last seven games and have scored at least 100 points just twice since Nowitzki went down on Dec. 27, they are not in badshape when taking in the panoramic view of the Western Conference.
It isn't the bear it has been the past three or four seasons. Just about everyone other than the San Antonio Spurs are dealing with internal issues. The Mavs are in no jeopardy of falling out of playoff position, in fact, even through this skid, they've maintained a spot in the top four. As Dallas gets healthier, it is in a virtual tie with Oklahoma City and New Orleans for third place in the conference standings, three games behind the Los Angeles Lakers.
Against those three teams, the Mavs are 4-2.
They were a possession or two away from stealing a road win at much-improved Chicago in yet another ugly, grinding ballgame. But, earlier in the week, they showed that they can ramp up both sides of the ball in the impressive 109-100 win over the Lakers in their first meeting of the season.
"The fight has been there. We have been clawing out there," forward Shawn Marion said. "We've been really helping each other out, really buckling down, focusing and doing what we have to do. Some nights, it's going to be really hard to just get a bucket, but as long as you stay active, stay consistent and make it hard for them [the opponent] as well, you never know what could happen. You just got to stay with it."
That's not to say there aren't concerns. DeShawn Stevenson seems to have hit a wall after his minutes were drastically ramped up after Nowitzki and Caron Butler went down. Jason Kidd has flashed signs of regaining his shooting touch, but on this two-game road trip he was was just 4-of-13 from the floor on the heels of his horrid four-game road trip when the team dropped all four by double digits. Jason Terry was 1-of-10 from 3-point range in the last two games as his percentage from continues to hover at a career-low.
The Mavs expect to sign Peja Stojakovic on Monday. His ability to contribute immediately is uncertain due to health issues that have limited him to just eight games this season. When healthy, Stojokovic helps to spread the floor and can provide spurts of knock-down 3-point shooting.
Trade scenarios are also being explored as the Feb. 24 deadline looms. But, the Mavs prefer to remain patient, eager to see Nowitzki return to full strength and the eventual return of flashy guard Roddy Beaubois before pulling the trigger on a deal that could net a solid contributor, but also a hefty contract.
The pivotal piece to long-term success, of course, is Nowitzki and his right knee. Although he continues to feel as though he's on the cusp of regaining full strength, it hasn't happened through five games back. After Saturday's win, Nowitzki said he felt like he was "running in quicksand."
"The chemistry is there," Cuban said. "Dirk’s just got to get healthy and we’re trying to get him there. We want to stay healthy just like anybody else. Any player comes back after missing for a while, especially somebody who you depend on so much, it’s a challenge. He’ll get back. Like I say every year, you just want to be healthy and playing well at the end of the year."