So when Nowitzki got the ball at the elbow with precious seconds ticking away and the Mavs trailing the lowly Nets by a point, how could anyone know what to expect? The old Mavs would've watched with confidence as the old Dirk confidently drained the go-ahead bucket like the assassin he's been for 13 years. But the rattled, currently struggling Mavs might've had some doubts.
The end result Saturday night seemed to perfectly capture Dallas' current state in a purgatory of sorts, somewhere between those two extremes. Nowitzki's shot hit the rim more times than courtside siren Kim Kardashian hit her text message send button during the game, and the Mavs walked away with an 87-86 victory that meant -- what, exactly?
|One game behind the Spurs before Nowitzki's absence, the Mavs are now trailing San Antonio by eight and a half games. (Getty Images)|
"Close to getting our mojo back," Jason Terry said, trying to put his finger on an appropriate progress report. "Winning with a Dirk jumper, that's old times for us. We remember those times real well. And then getting a stop with your defense to win it, that's huge for us. ... Things are going our way now."
The Mavs are 2-3 since Nowitzki returned from a nine-game absence because of a sprained right knee, having gone 2-7 without their star. They're back in Dallas for a four-game homestand that opens Tuesday night against the Clippers, hoping the ball, and the season, start bouncing in their favor again.
"If we keep putting in the effort on the floor and helping each other and pushing through it, it's going to turn around," forward Shawn Marion said.
Help is on the way in the form of veteran sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic as the Mavs search for a capable replacement for Butler, who was lost for the season with a knee injury on Jan. 1. Once a separate transaction sending center Alexis Ajinca to Toronto goes through some NBA red tape -- and Mavs owner Mark Cuban expects that it will -- Stojakovic will be free to sign and could be available Tuesday night.
The double-whammy of injuries to the two players on the roster most capable of getting their own shots -- and arguably the two toughest hombres and most capable emotional leaders -- sent the Mavs plummeting from elite to middling status. Losing Dirk was one thing, but losing Butler, too, was too much to overcome; Dallas is 4-7 since Butler went down.
"First and foremost, his attitude, the physical nature, the way he plays game," Terry said, describing what went to the trainer's room with Butler. "He's one of our spiritual leaders and then offensively, he can get buckets by himself. He doesn't need any help. So you're missing 25 points on any given night. But I think we've done a great job in his absence."
Stojakovic will help, but the focus will remain on Nowitzki -- where it should be. He's been up and down since returning Jan. 15 against Memphis, and was decidedly down for 47 minutes, 54 seconds against New Jersey. Nowitzki was 6 for 23 from the field before the deciding shot traveled around the rim and went down with six seconds left.
"Dirk's obviously not full strength yet," Cuban said. "His knee is fine, but he's got to get his explosiveness back; whatever explosiveness he has left, he's got to get some of that back. That's just not there. That comes with time."
As with San Antonio and the Lakers, this is all about getting healthy for the playoffs. But it's worth noting that Dallas was 24-5 when Nowitzki went down -- one game behind the Spurs in the loss column and four games ahead of the Lakers. San Antonio and L.A. have lost only three times each since then, putting the Mavs two games behind the Lakers in the loss column (a six-game swing) and eight behind the Spurs (a nine-game difference).
Coach Rick Carlisle's appropriate harping on defense and rebounding during this stretch has conveniently masked the precipitous decline in the Mavs' offensive production. Before Butler got hurt, the Mavs were averaging 98.2 points per game. In the 11 games since, they've dropped to 90.9.
"We just have to get out there and run a little bit more and push the ball more," Marion said. "We have plenty of guys capable of scoring. Caron played a big part, but everybody plays a big part on this team. This is not just a two-player team; this is a solid team. We've been having a hell of a year. Everybody has to step up a little bit more."
Including, perhaps, someone who isn't in a Mavs uniform yet -- and I don't mean Stojakovic.
Though the Mavs have not yet engaged Denver officials in conversations about Carmelo Anthony, Cuban clearly is open to the idea of exploring a rental deal for the three-time All-Star if it makes sense. Unfortunately for him, Butler and his expiring contract would've been one of the key pieces in a cost-saving Anthony proposal to the Nuggets. But until Anthony has successfully leveraged his way to New York, don't count the Mavs out of at least exploring a player who could give them so much needed scoring punch.
In the meantime, don't count them in or out of the Western Conference's elite, either. It's too early to tell which Mavs team will be standing in April when the only season that matters for them begins.
"Dirk's just got to get healthy," Cuban said. "We're trying to get him there. And when I say healthy, it's like anybody else. When any player comes back after missing for a while -- especially someone you depend on so much -- it's challenging. He'll get back. And like I say every year, you just want to be healthy and playing well at the end of the year."