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Mavs can't find their legs against Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- First came the bombardment, and then the debate.

Were the Dallas Mavericks really that bad? Or were their legs such a rubbery, fatigued mess that they had no chance to be good?

For a team that's shown improvement after starting this strange season 0-3, including consecutive embarrassing home losses, a third whipping by halftime immediately raises red flags.

The mantra is "No Excuses," but the reality is that on Thursday, Dallas was playing a sixth game in eight nights, unheard of during a conventional, 82-game season. And once the San Antonio Spurs came out firing, gunning in five of their first six 3-point attempts in the opening eight minutes, the Mavs were toast.

The 55-29 score at the half is not a misprint. The final score was 93-71. Dallas finally reached 40 points with 2:55 to play in the third quarter.

San Antonio scored 11 points in those 12 minutes and still led by 24.

"It's no excuse, but I think we actually fought," said Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with a season-low six points on 3-of-11 shooting, 1-of-7 for two points in the knockout first half. "They came out swinging, and sometimes I think we're reacting instead of acting; it happened a couple of times early in the season where we get down before we start fighting, but I like that we fought back and we tried, but just offensively, nobody had legs."

Only Jason Terry with 12 points and Delonte West, who had a late flurry to reach 10 points, got to double figures for Dallas. Adding to the abysmal evening was the loss of Jason Kidd to a lower back injury late in the first quarter. The severity of the injury won't be known until the 18-year veteran is examined Friday in Dallas.

"Bunch of shots were right there that could have gone," Nowitzki said. "Jet [Jason Terry] and myself, a lot of guys, Trix [Shawn Marion] had some floaters that just everything seemed to come out. So, when you have a lot of games like that, unfortunately it's going to happen."

Nowitzki then quickly credited the Spurs for making shots while Dallas stunk it up in the 20-percentile range through three quarters. And it's not like San Antonio breezed into this game not having suited up in a week. The Spurs were playing for the fifth time in eight nights -- the third in four nights -- and like the Mavs had played Wednesday night.

Blowouts are going to happen; they already are around the league under these circumstances. It is inevitable, just unexpected in the renewal of one of the league's most intense rivalries.

The Spurs were energized from the jump. Gary Neal, starting in place of injured leading scorer Manu Ginobili, drained a 3-pointer 12 seconds into the game. He hit another a little more than a minute later and another less than four minutes later for a 19-4 lead with 6:50 to go.

"We struggled, but their competitive level was higher and really the decisive part of the game was the first half," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "We responded much better in the second half, we won the second half; that's a positive if you're looking for positives. But it's a hit-first league. They hit first, and we didn't respond well enough in the first half."

San Antonio fed off Neal's sharpshooting, and strong first halves from Richard Jefferson with 13 of his 16 points and Matt Bonner nailing 11 of his game-high 17. They allowed Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to play a complementary game while Dallas' starters combined for eight first-half points on 4-of-17 shooting.

"It's tough," Terry said. "You're playing on the road in a tough environment, and they came out and made shots early, gave them a lot of confidence, too. They had guys making shots that ordinarily wouldn't make those shots they were making."

And really, if Dallas had been able to muster anything at all in the third quarter -- as crazy as it sounds after being down 26 -- the Mavs could have at least made things interesting. The Mavs started to hustle and play some defense, and forced a 3-of-20 from the Spurs and an oh-fer on six attempts with the 3-ball. Still, the Spurs entered the fourth up by 24.

So if this loss is to be chalked up to tired legs, one of those throwaway games you always hear about in the NBA, why did hustle and signs of defensive intensity kick in after halftime? Did it take a first-half humiliation to get the blood pumping?

"They came out really on fire," Nowitzki said. "After that first quarter, they really didn't shoot the ball well, either, and I thought we defended them pretty well, but in that first quarter, we were already dead."

The Mavs, now 3-5, will take Friday off before getting back to work at home Saturday night against a young and feisty New Orleans Hornets team. It's been quite a week, one in which Dallas held a rare shootaround on the morning of the second game of a back-to-back and then a rare practice the day after during this rugged stretch.

Better get used to it. Games are coming so fast players don't know what day of the week it is. It's up to each team to muscle through it.

The Spurs earned the early TKO.

It's no secret that it will be difficult for older teams. This is all about survival. Get a playoff spot and go from there. This loss does not advance the cause.

"Disappointing, disappointing," Carlisle said. "And look, we all own it so there's no excuses, no excuses."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.