OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the Dallas Mavericks walked into their locker room at halftime Monday night, Dirk Nowitzki asked them the score. Jason Terry told him it was tied. "Oh, then you got 'em," Nowitzki said. "I'll just take the night off."
Such is the confidence that is growing inside the Mavericks right now. Without head coach Rick Carlisle, without Nowitzki and without any healthy power forward, facing a legitimate contender in a rollicking arena after six days off, they still could not lose. The usually mild-mannered Nowitzki was screaming at the television in the locker room, his right knee wrapped, as the Mavs won for the 17th time in 18 games and eighth straight on the road. They are not just cleaning up on the Timberwolves and Clippers, either. Their last three victories have come in Miami, Orlando and most recently Oklahoma City, where they came back to beat the Thunder on Monday night 103-93.
The Mavericks insist they are a tougher, stingier and more emotional unit than the one that bowed out of the playoffs in the first round to the Spurs last season, and their visit to the Oklahoma City Center was just another piece in a mounting pile of evidence. To start the fourth quarter, the Thunder led and Terry was 1-of-9 with two points. During the break, he strolled over to a fan in the courtside seats who had been telling him, "Terry, keep shooting, you're with us tonight." Terry responded: "Don't worry. I'll really keep shooting now." While Terry made five field goals in the fourth quarter -- jawing with the courtside fan after every one -- the Mavericks held the Thunder to four. "That's what we've been working on all year long," Nowitzki said, referring to both the defensive intensity and offensive animation.
Nowitzki has been remarkably durable throughout his career, never missing more than six games in a season and only one in each of the past two years. But his leg had been bothering him for a couple of weeks, and in the second quarter, he came down awkwardly and felt his right knee buckle. Nowitzki stayed in the game to make the free throw before retreating to the locker room, where X-rays on the knee were negative. A MRI is scheduled for Tuesday morning in Dallas, before the Mavericks host the Raptors.
Nowitzki can compare notes with Carlisle, who underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his knee and did not make the trip to Oklahoma City. Filling in was assistant Dwane Casey, who has interviewed for head-coaching vacancies recently with the 76ers, Bulls, Nets, Hornets, Hawks and Clippers. Casey has another clip to add to his resume. With Nowitzki and backup Brian Cardinal out, and center Tyson Chandler hamstrung by foul trouble, Casey called on little-used reserve Alexis Ajinca to make a key three-pointer down the stretch. "It was going to be an air-ball or a swish," Casey said.
The Mavericks are 24-5, but they agreed this was perhaps their most momentous win. Through their playoff failures, they were known for wilting in adverse environments, depending too heavily on Nowitzki, and thinking more about scores than stops. "That label has long been shed," Terry said. "That won't ever happen again." As if to add punctuation to Terry's claim, Mavs forward Caron Butler spiked the ball high into the air the moment the buzzer sounded, triggering a round of boos and perhaps sowing the seeds for a future rivalry.
For now, the Mavs' chief nemesis remains the Spurs, who will visit them at American Airlines Center on Thursday night. San Antonio and Dallas are a combined 50-9, with the two best records in the NBA, the Spurs getting faster and the Mavs meaner. They have both made a lot of progress since last spring, and yet, they rely on each other to gauge exactly how much. The Mavs won the first meeting in San Antonio, with Nowitzki totaling 26 points and eight rebounds.
Nowitzki could afford to take off the second half Monday and probably the whole game Tuesday. Thursday, on the other hand, he really won't want to miss.