Mavs must change late-game fortunes

DALLAS -- The second his 3-pointer from the top of the arc dropped in with 1.4 seconds left, Vince Carter, despite his new Dallas Mavericks teammates mobbing him on the Thunder's home court, thought the game was only tied.

He didn't realize it put the Mavs up one as Oklahoma City quickly called timeout to set up a last-ditch attempt that would have to be executed with precision to work.

Of course, they, or rather he -- as in Kevin Durant -- drilled the game-winning 3-pointer well behind the arc off the inbounds pass, giving the Thunder a 104-102 victory in the Mavs' third game of the season.

"It was there for the taking," Carter said. "We just have to go out there and find a way. That's just what it's going to take."

That's not the way it has gone for the Mavs.

Two months later, back in Oklahoma City, the Mavs lost a one-point lead with 46.2 seconds to go on what Dallas believes was a phantom foul on Ian Mahinmi as he attempted to block Serge Ibaka's short jump hook. Ibaka made both free throws for a 92-91 lead and the Thunder won 95-91.

Afterward, coach Rick Carlisle said he was in disbelief a foul was called. In the locker room, Jason Kidd took it a step further and said the Mavs don't get the calls a champion should.

Add a third win with a dominant finish by OKC and the youthful Thunder have turned conventional wisdom -- and the way this matchup played out in the Western Conference finals a year ago -- on its head.

The Thunder will look to keep that trend moving in their favor when the two franchises separated by 205 miles begin their best-of-seven first-round series Saturday night in Oklahoma City.

"They have a little bit more experience under their belt with what they went through last year," Kidd said. "Hopefully our patience will come into play where come down last six minutes we feel like we can compete with the best."

Crunch-time success has been a point of pride for Oklahoma City this season after it endured national criticism for its undisciplined play during key stretches of last year's West finals. The Mavs' surprising lack of late-game success has caused a season's worth of consternation.

Dallas went from 10-6 a year ago in games decided by three points or less to 7-8 this year. There are reasons that can be used to explain the drop, such as meshing new players and injuries that kept units changing.

"I'm not going to make excuses," Carlisle said. "If I was to analyze it, I would say that a lot of those situations we would have been in a stronger position headed into the crunch time if we had our full complement of guys. But we went through some of those stretches last year and that's just part of it. Right now, talking about the past isn't very productive."

The lost opportunities at OKC were just two in a long line of examples this season of Dallas' experience and savvy failing to close the deal, a formula the elder Mavs count on against foes that are athletically superior, but also more mistake-prone.

It's led to some ugly and disturbing numbers that won't bode well in a playoff series: 13-20 on the road, 4-26 when trailing after three quarters and 10-13 in games decided by five points or less.

"There were some possessions this year where I remember we didn't even get a shot up, or turned the ball over, had some sloppy play," Nowitzki said. "If we don't execute down the stretch, it's going to be a quick out."

The belief is that a healthy lineup for really the first time all season will build cohesion and lead to more efficient play at both ends of the floor.

"We have to. It's as simple as that," Nowitzki said of changing their late-game fortunes. "If we want to have a deep playoff run, we've got to win close games. We've got to know how to close them out."

Carlisle said they will.

"We're going to be good at the end of games," Carlisle said. "I'm not worried about that."