No Dirk? No chance to close vs. Raptors

The shocker was the Dallas Mavericks starting off so hot while Dirk Nowitzki wore a corduroy sport coat and sat on the bench.

The Mavs' late meltdown? Painfully ugly and extremely predictable.

The Mavs have enough problems protecting big leads when they have the face of the franchise in uniform. After all, they'd blown leads of 17, 17, 18 and 19 points already this season before crossing the Canadian border.

So there was certainly no comfort on the visitors' bench when the Mavs raced out of the gates against the Toronto Raptors. It was agony as the Mavs watched a 21-point lead en route to a 93-85 loss on Wednesday night.

"We've got to do better," coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. "I know we're capable. It's a hard league and the games are long."

They're especially long without the Mavs' lone All-Star-caliber player. Frankly, the Mavs aren't that capable without Nowitzki, especially when it comes to closing time.

Not that Nowitzki finishes every game strong. His poor shooting has been a trend in the Mavs' meltdowns, such as when he missed his last six shots as the Mavs let a 19-point lead slip away in an overtime loss to the Raptors last month. But that's proof of how much the Mavs still count on the 16-year veteran to be their primary closer.

Monta Ellis is a nice complementary piece, but he's no go-to guy. He needs Nowitzki's presence to take pressure off him and create space due to the attention the 12th-leading scorer in NBA history demands from defenses, even at the tender age of 35.

There's a reason the Mavs have outscored opponents by 101 points with Ellis and Nowitzki on the court together and been outscored by 88 when Ellis is in the game without the big German.

The plus-minus for point guard Jose Calderon, the Mavs' other significant offseason addition, has a similar Dirk effect. With Dirk: plus-77. Without Dirk: minus-102.

And these guards have played a lot more minutes with Nowitzki than without him.

Without Nowitzki in the fourth quarter, the Mavs' offense was as frigid as the sub-zero Toronto weather.

The Mavs had four field goals in the quarter, while Ellis had as many turnovers. The Mavs ended up scoring 12 points and committing nine turnovers in the quarter, when Ellis and Calderon combined for two points and one assist.

The mystery is how the Mavs managed to score 34 points in the first quarter. The crunch-time collapse is simply further evidence of how much the Mavs need Nowitzki, who remains the clear-cut best player on the roster after swing-and-miss attempts to acquire superstars the past two summers.

The preventative-maintenance night off made sense due to the Mavs' Dirk dependence. If Nowitzki is not strong in the second half of the season, the Mavs are probably postseason spectators for a second straight season.

"It was just the right thing to do, right thing to do for him, for the organization," Carlisle said. "He needed a day to rest."

The Mavs needed a go-to guy down the stretch to avoid letting another big lead go to waste. But all Nowitzki could do was watch and hope his night off would be worth it down the road.