SAN ANTONIO -- Three weeks ago when Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle made a Christmas wish for good health, it seemed so innocent and well-meaning a request.
Dirk Nowitzki suffered a sprained right knee two days after Christmas, and despite his admirable optimism, he has missed nine mostly miserable Mavericks games. On New Year's Day, Caron Butler, ever-emerging as the scoring sidekick Nowitzki so badly needed, went on the shelf for the season with a ruptured right patellar tendon.
Even Carlisle had a knee scoped.
He would gladly hobble on crutches the rest of the season if it meant getting his feel-good bunch back, the one that romped to a 24-5 record. Suddenly at 26-12 after Friday's 101-89 steamrolling by the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavs' sobering reality is that their smooth season has sailed, and so too it would seem, have their chances of contending for the Southwest Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference.
While the Spurs pushed their home winning streak to 14 and improved their NBA-best record to 34-6, the Mavs now have dropped five games in the standings in Nowitzki's nine-game absence and sit seven games behind San Antonio. Dallas will drag its first four-game losing streak in two years into Saturday's game at Memphis, where the Mavs hope to have their leading scorer and MVP candidate back in uniform for the first time since Dec. 27.
Having lost seven of nine, the Mavs have discovered what the Elias Sports Bureau already knew: It's almost impossible to carry on with a wounded leading scorer. Throughout the NBA, teams have a .314 winning percentage (16-35) in games played without their leading scorer this season.
Dallas would have taken such a percentage during this stretch.
"It will be good to get our team back," center Tyson Chandler said. "The good thing is we know how good we are capable of being. We didn't start this stretch until we lost two of our key players, and that's a tough thing to swallow. This isn't anything that anybody else in the league wouldn't go through. The things we've got to do at this time are stick together and continue to try to get better."
There certainly weren't any sympathy cards waiting in the visiting locker room at the AT&T Center on Friday night. The Spurs have felt that pain before, but not in this so-far magical season, a term that had described the Mavs' inspiring, all-for-one run until being derailed by injuries.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has sent out the same starting five in all 40 games this season. No other team in the league can make that claim, and in this game, the Spurs' starting five outscored the Mavs' makeshift five 70-34.
Dallas, of course, won't get its full team back. Butler is lost, and it is already evident the void will be difficult to fill. Still, Nowitzki, who was averaging 24.1 points with remarkable efficiency, is the key and his return is imminent. When he does get back, the Mavs will have to quickly reboot and regain the defensive tenacity and the confidence the team brought into every game and every fourth quarter before.
Right now, that mojo is dust.
"That's the biggest thing we are missing right now is the little edge we had when things would happen or things would go wrong," said Shawn Marion, who has been thrust into the starting lineup since Butler's injury. "We would find a way with that edge to fight our way over the hump and get through some wins. We've lost that right now and we've got to find a way to get that back. Who knows, you can say as soon as Dirk comes back that edge might come back as well. But it might not."
On Nov. 26, the Mavs came to town and stripped the Spurs of their 12-game win streak. This incarnation fell behind by 10 in the first quarter, by 20 in the second and by 24 at the end of the third.
San Antonio shot 45 percent for the game, an exasperating trend during this awful stretch that resembles nothing of the defense that had Dallas ranked in the top five in the league in field goal percentage defense and scoring defense.
"We have things that we have to work on regardless if Dirk is out there or not," said Chandler, who played with a fever and had a tough night with eight points, two rebounds and five fouls in just 16 minutes. "We have to get better as a team for the long run. Right now, we're doing some things defensively and offensively that are so uncharacteristic of us. With [Nowitzki] out there, yeah, he's going to carry a lot of the load offensively, but if we want to be the team we know we want to be, we have some things that we need to correct."
The first step is getting Nowitzki back. The second is regaining the confidence of that 24-5 team. The season is hardly lost. Through all the turmoil, only San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers (29-11) have fewer losses.
"I'm a big believer in this group. I just am. We're going through a tough stretch right now and we're taking our hits and it's no fun, but I'm a believer," Carlisle said. "I like all these guys; I respect them. They did an awful lot of things very well to put themselves in a position where we got off to a great start. Right now, we're circling the wagons and we've got to make a stand.
"It's pretty much as simple as that."
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.