DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki’s sprained left ankle was the least of his concerns Friday night.
Nowitzki was fine physically after taking some anti-inflammatories and getting his ankle taped up before scoring 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting against the Los Angeles Clippers. But he felt miserable after the Mavs’ 119-112 loss, an inexcusable outcome after Dallas built a 13-point lead and L.A. lost All-Star point guard Chris Paul to a separated shoulder midway through the third quarter.
“It’s a game we can’t lose,” Nowitzki said. “Can’t afford to lose that one.”
Nowitzki has had similar takes after a few other losses this season. The Mavs have blown leads of 17 to the Atlanta Hawks, 18 to the Golden State Warriors and 19 to the Toronto Raptors in losses. With the exception of the Atlanta loss, all of those happened at the American Airlines Center.
The sting of this loss led to Nowitzki’s most pessimistic comment of the season, by far.
“The way we let those games slip away, I don’t think we’re a playoff team,” Nowitzki said. “We’ve got to win those games. We’ve got to find a way to get those stops and protect the home court.”
At the moment, the Mavs would be the West’s last playoff team. They’re in eighth place in the conference with a 19-14 record, 2 1/2 games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But that’s of little comfort to Nowitzki, who desperately wants to be part of a Dallas team with a legitimate chance to contend again during the golden years of his career.
He’s fearful that losses like this one will come back to bite the Mavs in mid-April, well aware that the Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers could all compete with the Mavs and Phoenix Suns for the conference’s last two playoff spots.
So it makes Nowitzki sick to see another lead slip away, especially with the Clippers closing out the game on a 16-2 run.
“It just always comes down for us to getting stops and rebounds,” Nowitzki said. “If we don’t, we’re in trouble. If you look at the numbers, we scored 112 [and] we shot over 50 percent. There’s no way we should have lost that game.
“We’ve got to do better. We knew coming into the season that we were going to be challenged on rebounding and defense. We’ve got to try harder.”
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle agreed.
“We just gave it up too easy,” he said. “Defensively, they went right through us. And offensively, without getting stops, the shots got harder. It’s on every one of us, coaches and players, and it’s very disappointing because this was an opportunity lost.”
The Mavs can only hope it's not an opportunity that haunts them at the end of the season.