Mavericks have reason for hope

OKLAHOMA CITY -- One flick of Kevin Durant's wrist splashed a remarkable, fall-away, 27-foot game winner at the buzzer, stealing an elusive first win from the Dallas Mavericks, and then setting off a wildly odd spectrum of emotion from a defending champion still grappling with how to look and act like one in its new skin.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said the basketball gods are not with his team, not yet.

"When you're going through a tough stretch, those kinds of shots go in against you," Carlisle said after the stunning, 104-102 loss Thursday night sent the defending champs to 0-3. "Right now, that's our reality."

Center Brendan Haywood, having played his finest game of the season after heavy early criticism, sat in front of his locker, knees wrapped in ice and his face long.

"Just disappointing," the 7-footer said, still wearing his headband. "We had the game won, and Durant throws in a hell of a shot. Just disappointing because we fought very, very hard and it looked like we had the game, so just very disappointing."

On the other side of the room was Jason Terry, who -- not terribly surprising to anyone who has spent any time around him -- was smiling and preaching positivity.

"Encouraging, because if you looked at those first two games, that wasn't the Mavericks at all," Terry said, referring to consecutive blowout losses to the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets earlier in the week. "Tonight, this is the Mavericks -- play you tough, get to the fourth quarter and we put ourselves in position to win.

"And nine times out of 10, we're going to win that ballgame. Kevin Durant, hell of a job."

Then Terry was reminded that Durant & Co. are the popular pick to unseat the Mavs and win the Western Conference.

"If they're picked to win the West, we certainly like that," Terry said. "That's a good sign. We're not too far away then."


Two days ago, there was not a team gripping the bat tighter. Miami and Denver each led by more than 30 points in the third quarter, and more pain was predicted Thursday night from a Thunder team that apparently does have the gods, and the impossibly long Durant, on its side in running up a 4-0 start.

Yet, with one competitive game, the West is back in sight for the Mavs. Of course, that perspective can change as quickly as the sun rises and sets again. Because that's when the Mavs will be back in action, facing Friday night at home a young and eager Toronto Raptors squad coached by former Mavs assistant Dwane Casey.

Such is life for this rarest of defending champs, one that was halfway dismantled by ownership under its new era of pocketbook management, and then reconstructed on the fly and thrust into what is already a strange season that snaps off games at a machine-gun pace.

"There's every built-in excuse for our team if you want to look for them and buy into them, but we're not going to have any of that," Carlisle said. "We have a different team this year. Our owner did the right thing breaking up the team for the franchise. It's the right move for the franchise. So the guys that we have have to make this work, and as the coach I've got to make sure they're doing the right things to do that. That's the cold-blooded truth."

Durant's high-arching game winner was cold-blooded. Vince Carter's 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds to play -- which put Dallas ahead 102-101, capped a 6-0 run and stunned the capacity crowd that had seen this ending before by visiting Dallas teams -- was cold-blooded. It was just 1.4 seconds too early.

When the players finished showering and could somewhat make sense of this game and their bizarre week as a whole that started on Christmas Day, this effort was an important one and desperately needed for the overall psyche.

It wasn't perfect, not by a long shot. Somehow OKC, playing a fourth game in five nights and on the tail end of a back-to-back following the Durant-Russell Westbrook dust-up, was in this game despite committing 26 turnovers for 33 Mavs points.

The Thunder were in it because when they weren't throwing the ball around, they were lighting up Dallas' defense at a 58.7 percent clip from the floor.

There were errors and mental gaffes throughout the game, near-fatal ones in the waning moments: a Dirk Nowitzki turnover and a failed late swipe by Terry as Westbrook went up for a breakaway slam that became a three-point play; an offensive foul on Nowitzki that angered him enough that he barked his way to a technical that put OKC up 99-96 with 1:04 to go, a lead that soon became 101-96 and seemed safely tucked away.

In each quarter, Dallas fought through the unfamiliarity that still clings to the roster and the mistakes that come with it. The Mavs led by 12 in the first quarter, but OKC quickly chopped it down. In the third, Dallas went up eight points but trailed by two when the buzzer sounded.

And then there was the fourth quarter, the quarter Dallas dominated last season when defense became, as Carlisle liked to say, its calling card, when that other 7-foot-1 guy used to roam the middle and changed the culture.

Those days are gone, and that reality is hitting hard. The newcomers are coming along, some (Delonte West) quicker than others (Carter, and especially Lamar Odom). Even so, the Mavs managed to find a bit of themselves in this game and in that fourth quarter in which they darn near, if the gods had just come over to their side, pulled the thing out.

"I like the fight we showed for the first time, making stuff hard, trying to get up and play together and fight for each other out there," said Nowitzki, who finished with 29 points, one shy of Durant's 30. "That's what's going to get it done in this league. Nothing's going to be given to us. I think we realize as a team that last year is over and we've got to build on what we have and the guys that we have, and I think that definitely was a step in the right direction."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.