Is 'Pressure' A Dirty Word To Mavs 'Not-Ready-For-Clutch-Time Players'?

Mike Fisher

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has, for these last few weeks inside the NBA's Orlando bubble, conducted daily media briefings via Zoom with cooperation and even cordiality. Late Friday night, after Dallas' 153-149 OT loss to Houston, Rick's tone changed - really, almost in mid-sentence.

Carlisle was in the midst of rattling off what he called the "culprits'' that led to the Mavs holding a seven-point lead with one minute left  in regulation before coughing it up - he mentioned "missed free throws'' and the inexcusable Rockets put-back of a missed free throw of their own'' - and then he shifted gears.

“I’ll take the blame for this one,'' Carlisle said, the right and valiant thing for a coach to say. "I’ll take full responsibility for the loss. ...

But then Rick shifted again, ever so slightly, back toward "cooperative.''

"I want,'' he said (as you can see in the video below), "to keep the pressure off the players.”

The truth is, of course it is a credit to the coaches and players when a team builds itself into what is by the numbers the most efficiently explosive offense in NBA history. At the same time, it is also the fault of those same coaches and players when that efficiently explosive offense implodes in the final minutes of games, as happens to Dallas more than 28 of the other 30 teams in the league.

Is "clutch'' the problem? Is "pressure'' the problem? Are we watching an "almost-good'' Mavs team, an "entertaining, but'' Mavs team?

Are the Dallas Mavericks "The Not-Ready-For-Clutch-Time Players''?

On the ESPN telecast, Doris Burke suggested that the fact Dallas this season - bridging, of course, the pre-COVID-19 hiatus and the Friday re-boot - has now lost 17 close games in the final five minutes might be creeping into the players' psyche.

Later, in the postgame locker room, the always insightful Kristaps Porzingis said maybe a mistake was made in trying to "slow things down'' late in the game, in trying to "cruise'' to a win rather than sticking with the high-octane offensive approach that is this team's trademark ...

At least in the first 43 or so minutes of games, it is.

Said Porzingis: “I think we should have stayed probably more offensive-minded the way we were the whole game. At the end we tried to slow it down and the pressure was up obviously, and we tried to slow it down, and kind of just cruise and win the game. We just have to go out there and keep playing aggressively, attack ...

"It’s a great lesson for us to learn from and hopefully not make those same mistakes at the end in the following games.”

Carlisle is certainly correct in trying to shield his players from crunch-time criticism; viewing one's self as a player who "can't close'' can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that doesn't mean it's right that Luka Doncic and company can be shielded from in-game "pressure''; it's a much a part of the sport as dribbling, rebounding and - suddenly - fake fans in the stands.

Interestingly, while Porzingis (39 points to go with 16 rebounds) admits "the pressure was up,'' Doncic (28 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists) dismissive of the suggestion that there's even much of a trend here. After the game, he cited the team's youth and said, "I know we're going to get (it) together when it matters most, so I'm not worried about that."

And, as Mavs fans know, Luka has famously talked of being so accustomed to "pressure'' that he doesn't even feel it anymore.

But ... Dallas on Friday scored 42 points in the first quarter. By halftime the Mavs had 80. After 47 minutes of play, they had 131 points.

And in the final 49 seconds, they scored one point. And allowed eight. Thus permitting overtime ... and another clutch-time hot box that their tendencies insist they are not ready for - Doncic's whistle-past-the-graveyard pronouncements notwithstanding.

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By the way: Luka's shooting in clutch minutes sinks. Deeply. Especially his 3-point shooting. In clutch time, he devolves into a 17-percent shooter. ... the sort of struggles exhibited on Friday, too.

Bemoaning the fact that a win would've sealed a playoff slot for the No. 7 seed Mavs and would've closed them to within just a game of No. 6 seed Houston is not to take anything away from the Rockets. That's a frighteningly unorthodox NBA team, and maybe right there alongside the Mavs in terms of offensive ability, all led by a player that Carlisle is willing to compare to the likes of Michael Jordan.

“Pound for pound, Harden is one of the best scorers in the history of basketball, up there with all the greats,” said Carlisle of Harden, who scored 49. “You look at the number of points he’s averaging, it’s breathtaking what he’s done over the past couple of years.”

Harden went into Friday’s game averaging 34.4 points per game after averaging 36.1 last season. He's on pace to be the first player to average 34 or more points in consecutive seasons since ... that's right, Michael Jordan.

So the Rockets have uncontrollable offensive talent. And the Mavs have uncontrollable offensive talent. What's the difference?

This outcome, Houston's Russell Westbrook said, "shows that we have fight. It shows that we can close games."

And it shows that the young Dallas Mavericks are, in the final minutes of too many games, fighting themselves, under so much "pressure'' that they're barely even allowing themselves to acknowledge the word, that they are, for all their prowess, "The Not-Ready-For-Clutch-Time Players.''