Mavericks flirt with rock bottom

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Dirk Nowitzki returned to the lineup for the first time in nearly three weeks, but he didn't last long enough to help the Dallas Mavericks reverse a skid that hit both five games and, according to Nowitzki, the basement.

"It's gone downhill since we had two injuries, so we pretty much hit rock bottom," Nowitzki said after logging just 15 minutes and seven points before getting ejected for arguing a call in his first game since Dec. 27. "I mean, we can't get any lower so we have to scratch our way out of it. We'll get away from it [Sunday], get recharged for a big one Monday. It doesn't slow down from there."

After Saturday's 89-70 beat down at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Mavs' four-game road trip is down to one salvageable game at hapless Detroit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The events of the last three weeks, in which Dallas has gone from the talk of the league to a frazzled mess, are almost not to be believed: Nowitzki sprains his knee; two games later Caron Butler is lost for the season; eight losses in the last 10 games; five consecutive defeats, the longest skid since a five-gamer in the first two weeks of Rick Carlisle's tenure two seasons ago.

And then on the day Nowitzki is set to return, word comes down that emotional leader and top defender Tyson Chandler is too sick to get out of his hotel bed. He later would make it to the arena on his own for moral support, arriving at about the time Eric Dalen pointed Nowitzki, just 2-of-7 from the floor, to an early shower.

"If it ain't one thing it's another, huh?" Jason Terry said. "It just is what it is for us right now. Effort was there tonight. The other night it wasn't there; tonight it was there."

Carlisle and Nowitzki also cited the club for strong effort and scrappy play. It might be the first time any of them have done so after a 19-point pummeling in which they scored a season-low 70 points. But that's where this thing has gone, from a robust 24-5 record to a teetering 26-13 mark -- slipping to fifth in the Western Conference standings -- with no answers in sight other than grasping for time and patience and belief.

"Well, we have no other choice. Obviously, it's tough times right now," Nowitzki said. "We've lost eight out of last 10 or whatever we lost, so that's never fun to go through.

"But it can only get better; get Tyson healthy and just keep playing hard. At least today we scrapped, we rebounded with them -- they're a very good rebounding team -- so I think effort-wise it was there, but for some reason we can't score right now. The last couple of games we can't even put up 85 points, so it's tough to win that way."

The Mavs shot 32.4 percent, and that was with Ian Mahinmi going 6-of-6 for a career- and team-high 17 points. The starters mustered 26 points, remarkably going lower than Friday's output of 34 points with Alexis Anjica starting at power forward.

Jason Kidd gave Dallas a 3-0 lead with a 3-point swish at the 11:17 mark and then missed the next six shots he took in more than 30 minutes of action. DeShawn Stevenson missed all five of his shots and then watched rookie Dominique Jones take his starting spot after halftime. Jones, however, went 0-of-6. J.J. Barea made 3-of-12. Dallas launched 31 shots from behind the arc and made six.

"We're not in rhythm right now," said Terry, who followed a 3-of-14 shooting night for nine points in San Antonio with 4-of-14 for eight points in Memphis. "Our team is not in rhythm. Blame it on whatever you want, but it's on us to get it back. Monday is another challenge for us and hopefully we'll be better."

A 14-1 run put Memphis up 22-7 and that was really all she wrote.

"The first quarter was our undoing," Carlisle said, which was confounding on a night when the Mavs figured to hit the floor with resolve.

On Zach Randolph bobblehead night, the big man again terrorized Dallas with a monster double-double of 23 points and 20 rebounds. He also garnered an assist for annoying Nowitzki to the point that he overheated in a 12-point game early in the third and got tossed for just the fourth time in his career.

Minutes later, Memphis went up by 18 and cruised.

Like Nowitzki said, it can't get any worse -- it wouldn't seem. By Monday afternoon, he will have had a little more time to get his right knee closer to 100 percent and knock off some more rust. Chandler will have had time to weed out whatever virus is wreaking havoc on his body, and then perhaps the Mavs might again recognize themselves.

They'll need to. After Monday's game comes a back-to-back set against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday and at the Chicago Bulls on Thursday.

"Everything's a real challenge right now, but we can't hang our heads," Carlisle said. "We've got to stick together and just keep fighting."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.