“This one is, I would say, a great loss for us,” Mavs center Kristaps Porzingis said after his 39-point, 16-rebound performance in their opener of the seeding schedule for the NBA restart in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “We have to take lessons from this game. We have to look at the film and see what we could have done better at the end to close out the game. That’s it. I feel like we have to take the positive of this tough loss that we had and try to learn from it.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Porzingis has made similar statements after some of the Mavs’ late-game failures this season. Those have been a troubling trend for Dallas, which blew an opportunity to put itself on the heels of Houston, increasing the odds that the Mavs will stay in the Western Conference’s seventh seed and face the LA Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.
Statistically, the Mavs feature the most efficient offense in NBA history, which was on display as Dallas torched the Rockets for 119 points through three quarters. However, the Mavs’ offense has sputtered miserably all season in clutch situations, averaging only 92.9 points per 100 possessions when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime. That ranks 29th in the league, ahead of only the bubble-excluded Detroit Pistons.
That’s the primary reason the Mavs have a 14-22 record (.389) in games that fit the clutch designation. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers have had a worse clutch winning percentage among teams with plus-.500 records over the past 20 years.
“We’re a young team. We’ve got a lot to learn,” said Mavs point guard Luka Doncic, who finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists but struggled in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he was 2-of-8 from the floor with three of his eight turnovers. “We’ll get better for sure. I know we’re going to get together when it matters most in the playoffs, so I’m not worried about that.”
It required some extraordinary developments for the Rockets — who got a combined 80 points from superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, their most as teammates — to escape The Arena on the Walt Disney World campus with a win.
Houston trailed by seven with 45 seconds to go in regulation. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, teams had been 2-711 when trailing by seven or more in the final minute of regulation entering Friday.
“We kept telling ourselves that we’re built for it,” said Harden, who had 49 points on 14-of-20 shooting, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. “We’re going to play four quarters. We have legs to be able to push through [and] mental toughness.”
The Rockets, who trailed by 13 early in the fourth quarter, finished regulation with an 8-1 run that started when Harden hit a 32-foot 3-pointer. After Doncic missed a long 3 as the shot clock was ticking down, Rockets forward Robert Covington got fouled and made both free throws. Mavs guard Seth Curry split a pair of free throws, keeping it a one-possession game.
After a timeout, the Mavs intentionally fouled Harden after he received the inbounds pass near half court, wanting to keep him from being able to attempt a 3-pointer. There was some controversy about whether Dorian Finney-Smith fouled Harden before he started his shooting motion, but the referees ruled that the foul occurred on the floor, sending Harden to the line for two free throws, not three, with 3.9 seconds remaining.
Harden made the first and missed the second, but Covington slithered past a boxout by Mavs forward Maxi Kleber to the other side of the basket for a tip-in in traffic to tie the score. The game went into overtime when Doncic airballed another 3, an ugly end to a 20-point quarter for Dallas.
“A lot of this stuff comes down to details,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Look, I’ll take full responsibility for the loss. I want to keep the pressure off the players. They really played their butts off, but we were unable to make some key plays that we needed to make.”
Harden scored seven of his 49 points in overtime to help the Rockets put the game away.
“We willed our way to that win,” said Westbrook, who had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists. “We went and took that game. They thought they had it, and we went and took it away.”
The Rockets had that opportunity because the Mavs’ offense got stuck in the mud in the fourth quarter.
Dallas shot 57.4% from the floor, including 17-of-30 from 3-point range, through three quarters. But the Mavs bogged down in the fourth, going 7-of-28 from the floor, and made matters worse by missing four of their seven free throws in the frame.
“I think we should have stayed more offensive-minded, the way we were the whole game,” Porzingis said. “At the end, we tried to slow it down, and the pressure was up obviously. We tried to slow it down and kind of just cruise and win the game. Or maybe not to lose the game.”