Commentary

Mavericks now 0-6 against winning teams since Kidd's return

Originally Published: March 19, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Dirk NowitzkiGlenn James/NBAE via Getty ImagesDespite 35 points from Dirk Nowitzki, victory once again was just out of Dallas' grasp.

DALLAS -- This is not American football. So don't even go there.

The Dallas Mavericks can't blame this one on the city's so-called Jessica Simpson Jinx.

Simpson was indeed spotted in a baseline seat at American Airlines Center on Tuesday night, which undoubtedly would have spawned a wave of local panic had the venue been Texas Stadium.

But in the basketball arena? Rest assured, this Dallas sporting institution preserved its perfectly blemished record against winning teams since bringing back Jason Kidd -- it now is 0-6 -- without any help or interference from the courtside presence of Simpson and boyfriend Tony Romo.

The Mavs did a lot of damage to themselves against the wounded Los Angeles Lakers. Combine that with all the first-half and crunch-time problems caused by the edgy, aggressive visitors, and the result was a wild, frustrating 102-100 defeat for Dallas.

"My confidence is not shaken," Mavs coach Avery Johnson insisted after watching his team fall behind by 25 points to an L.A. team playing without Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and then fall just short with its second-half rally.

"I think, more than anything, it showed what we could do when we play the right way," Johnson said.

If that's what happens from here for the Mavs, they eventually will forget they came out and played so flatly and meekly in the first half of their first big game at full strength since March 3, when they visited the Utah Jazz. If they can somehow rebound Thursday with a victory over the mighty Boston Celtics, there will be less of an urge to torture themselves with the details of what so nearly became a historic comeback.

For now, though, it's strictly Torture Time.

Only the Mavs can tell you why they looked so unprepared to take advantage of the Lakers' high-profile and long-limbed absentees after five double-digit victories over the dregs of the East.

Only the Mavs can tell you how doubly deflating it is to fall behind 76-51 with 5:44 to go in the third quarter on Kobe Bryant's over-the-head, off-the-glass, can't-do-it-justice-without-the-aid-of-TV layup … and still have a shot to tie it or win it on the game's final possession.

Only the Mavs can describe the despair of seeing Josh Howard throw the final inbounds pass too low, causing Dirk Nowitzki to fumble the ball before drawing no rim on his 3-point heave at the buzzer, wasting what might have been the best fourth-quarter defense on Bryant that the Mavs can expect to play.

The Mavs forced the ball out of Bryant's hands frequently in the final period by sending over a second defender to harass him. With some decent one-on-one coverage in spots by Devean George and Kidd, and with no Gasol or Bynum to draw attention inside and open up the perimeter, Bryant managed only five of his 29 points in the final period.

Yet Dallas couldn't capitalize. The Mavs got back into the game with a 23-3 run that was sparked by: (A) Bryant getting hit with two fouls in the third quarter to force him to the bench; and (B) Tyronn Lue running the offense in Kidd's place. But they couldn't overcome the no-show in the first two quarters, which Johnson described as his team's "apologetic mode."

"Like we shouldn't even be here," Johnson said.

It's true. For two quarters, Simpson and Romo saw a surrender. Not even the hosts' playmaking savior could generate any offense; Kidd had one point, two assists and two rebounds at halftime. It got so bad, Nowitzki -- who actually was vintage Dirk for most of the evening, with 35 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks -- and the Mavs were subjected to "M-V-P" chants for Bryant from a loud pocket of Lakers fans.

The Mavs fumed in the final minute -- owner Mark Cuban especially -- when Jerry Stackhouse was called for an over-the-back foul that sent Lamar Odom (17 points, 17 rebounds) to the line, only to see the 67 percent shooter drain both free throws. Yet this probably was not the night to quibble over calls, since Dallas didn't really start its comeback until Bryant left the floor with foul trouble … and since Dallas did go to the line 18 times in the third quarter.

There were more problems. Dallas couldn't keep Vladimir Radmanovic from hitting three huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. The Mavs watched helplessly as Sasha Vujacic tossed in a clutch jumper of his own near the end, which Vujacic -- yes, Vujacic -- followed up with a Dikembe Mutombo-style finger wag. Worst of all, Dallas had to concede it played its best ball of the night with Kidd off the floor, after its only previous loss to a playoff-bound team since Kidd's return to Big D came when Nowitzki was suspended for the March 6 game against the Houston Rockets.

"We won five games in a row and didn't move up a spot [in the conference standings]," Nowitzki said. "That's the way it is out here in the West right now."

But Nowitzki stressed that Kidd shouldn't get the blame, either, even if things aren't quite as all-new for the Mavs as they were when they lost in overtime March 2 at the Lakers.

"To play with Jase is a blast," Nowitzki said. "But I don't think everything is totally natural to him yet."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics