DALLAS — Strike three, you’re out.
With a third opportunity in the last two weeks to break even and grab a shave for the first time in months, the Dallas Mavericks were blown away, inexplicably embarrassed at home by the skidding Phoenix Suns and laid to rest their run of 12 consecutive playoff appearances.
That franchise record officially ended Wednesday night when the Lakers outlasted the Trail Blazers about 90 minutes after a dominant Goran Dragic (21 points, 13 assists) and the relief-smitten Suns left Dallas with a 102-91 victory.
Each of the Mavs’ three attempts to reach .500 ended in double-digit losses and by an average margin of 18.6 points.
“Every time we’ve had a chance we’ve kind of laid an egg,” said a disappointed Dirk Nowitzki, who said his gimpy ankle was fine as he went just 6-for-18 from the floor for 21 points. “We obviously want to finish the season with a positive record. We owe that to everybody, to the franchise and the fans. This was a game we needed to have.”
Prior to it, Mavs owner Mark Cuban, unaccustomed to rooting for ping-pong balls, acknowledged the obvious: his club has “room to improve, a lot of room to improve.” Then he watched from his baseline seat as the same infuriating issues — horrific guard play, poor defensive rebounding and a non-contesting defense — breathed life into the visitors who entered having lost 10 straight overall, 10 in a row to the Mavs and hadn’t won in Dallas since March 2007.
“We were the team that looked like we were on a back-to-back, not them,” Nowitzki said. “Just a terrible, terrible, disappointing loss.”
After the Mavs’ Wednesday morning shootaround, coach Rick Carlisle was asked if he had to guard against his team taking the cellar-dwelling Suns for granted. His response: “Anybody around here who’s taking any games for granted this year is a [expletive] idiot.”
Yet that message apparently didn’t reach his players. There was veteran Vince Carter, the team’s most consistent performer this season next to Shawn Marion, admitting as much while answering a question that never broached the topic of taking the opponent for granted.
“I think we took the team for granted at the beginning and felt like we could just win the game,” Carter said. “Took their record, their streak for granted, if you ask me. You just can’t do that.”
The last time Dallas didn’t make the playoffs — in the 1999-2000 season — Nowitzki was 21, in his second season and barely able to grow patches of peach fuzz, let alone the mountain-man beard he now sports.
“It didn’t look good for two or three weeks,” Nowitzki said of the Mavs’ playoff chances. “So it’s not like we had unbelievable high hopes for it. It’s not like our hopes are crushed tonight.”
Perhaps not, but the reality of it will certainly set in over a long offseason. Nowitzki reached the pinnacle of his career as The Finals MVP in 2011, delivering the franchise its first championship. Since that shining moment in South Beach, he’s watched the title team be dismantled, suffered the only playoff sweep of his career last season and now he won’t even get that opportunity.
Since that title-clinching night when Nowitzki and his long-gone teammates — Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry — toasted one another, the Mavs have gone 74-70. This empty spring will lead to a busy summer full of decisions for Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. A second season with a roster full of expiring contracts could leave nine spots open next season if O.J. Mayo opts out of his contract.
Nowitzki has beat the same drum all season: “This is a big summer for us.” Dallas lost out in its pursuit of Deron Williams last summer and now must get creative to put a competitive team around their 7-foot star who turns 35 in June and will enter the final year of his contract.
His health in his 15th season is also now an unavoidable issue. Nowitzki missed the first 27 games of the season after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, the first operation of his career, and 29 games in all. Averaging 17.0 points, he’s on pace with four games left to finish with his lowest scoring average since his rookie season. He had his moments, pouring in 33 against the Clippers and 35 against the Bulls. But in his last five games, a stretch Dallas is 2-3, Nowitzki’s averaged 11.5 points.
Cuban noted that had his core three — Nowitzki, 34, Marion (missed 15 games), 34, and Carter (missed one game), 36 — played the entire season together, then the season’s direction might have been different. Still, those three were all on the floor Wednesday. They accounted for 61 of 91 points and Dallas still lost to the struggling Suns.
Cuban reiterated Wednesday that the offseason plan remains the same as last summer, to somehow — through free agency or a trade — deliver an impact player that can ease Nowitzki into a co-starring role.
That destination at the moment has no clear path.
“We maximized the first generation of Dirk’s golden years to win a championship,” Cuban said. “So we’ll do our best for his second generation of golden years and then the next generation and the next generation until he runs out of golden years.”
It’s going to be a big summer in Dallas.