DALLAS - Once upon a time, the Dallas Mavericks epitomized "clutch.'' In Jason Kidd, they employed one of the great orchestrators in sports history. In Dirk Nowitzki, they employed one of the great scorers, players, winners. And in Rick Carlisle, they employed a coach masterful in button-pushing.
That was then. Can it also be now?
“We’re starting to get this train rolling,” says backup point guard Jalen Brunson.
And it's true, to some degree. Dallas had lost six straight games before a recent surge, a three-game win streak, with each of the victories requiring crunch-time success. Brunson has been a helper. So has Willie Cauley-Stein. And Tim Hardaway Jr., the leader of Dallas' bench, is averaging 17 points with 9-of-23 shooting from the arc.
Most important, though, is Luka Doncic, at age 21 working to supplement his incredible skill with down-the-stretch results. For Dallas, working in conjunction with Carlisle, it's all about him, trying to replicate what Kidd and Dirk and company did in winning the 2011 NBA title.
Doncic predicted this would be a learning process, a growing process. It was painful last year when despite the team's general success, it was 2-11 in games decided by three points or fewer. This year, Dallas is 2-2 in that circumstance, and in these three wins, the Mavs' victory margin has been by one point, by two points and by five points.
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Add it up and the Mavs are still just 12-14 entering Friday’s home game against New Orleans, a 6:30 p.m. tip that will be nationally-televised. And Carlisle is trying to stress that just winning the final moments of the final quarter isn't good enough.
“I was really proud of our fourth quarter,” Carlisle said of the Wednesday win over Atlanta. “The first three quarters were very up and down. We were indifferent defensively, we weren’t tied together offensively ... The first three quarters were pretty frustrating for everybody. But in the fourth quarter it was pure basketball, it was pure unselfishness offensively and pure grit defensively, and I was proud of the team the way they responded.”
Indeed, Dallas can help itself by not digging holes that require pinpoint precision in the late-going. But a previous generation of Mavs endured a learning curve. This generation must do the same.
“We’ve got three in a row,'' Doncic said, "but we’re just getting started.''
And, hopefully, getting finished, too.