DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki was a baby-faced kid barely old enough to drink the last time the Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs.
Now he’s a bearded veteran who can’t shave because he and others vowed not to until the team got back to .500.
Dallas still has a shot at a break-even record, but will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
An unexpected loss to lowly Phoenix, which snapped a 10-game losing streak, put the Mavericks on the brink of postseason elimination Wednesday night. The Los Angeles Lakers finished them off a couple of hours later by beating Portland.
Just two years removed from the franchise’s first championship, the Mavericks (38-40) simply never recovered from Nowitzki missing the first 27 games after the first knee surgery of his career.
“We’re going to try to win the next game to get this to .500,” said Nowitzki, about to finish his 15th NBA season. “We’d love to finish with a positive record. That means something and we’re going to fight for it.”
In a week, the Mavericks will go into their third consecutive off-season of uncertainty after back-to-back seasons of teams filled with one-year or expiring contracts.
Despite the disastrous addition of Lamar Odom that didn’t even last the lockout-shortened season a year ago, Dallas extended its playoff streak to 12 seasons – second longest in the NBA behind San Antonio, which made it 14 in a row this year.
When Deron Williams spurned the Mavericks in free agency and Jason Kidd picked the New York Knicks after saying he would return to Dallas, the Mavericks brought in Darren Collison as their point guard and O.J. Mayo as a primary scoring threat alongside him.
Chris Kaman agreed on a one-year deal as the center, and Elton Brand joined the frontcourt on an amnesty waiver claim after Philadelphia let him go. Vince Carter was back for a second year.
The Mavericks felt pretty good about their Plan B, but they figured on having Nowitzki the entire time. Instead, they essentially were without him for half the season because it took him another 10 games to find anything resembling a groove after his right knee simply couldn’t make it through training camp.
“There’s a lot of observations that can be made about this team,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “But I think the truth is, we’re a team with parts that fit together a certain way. The collective disposition, the collective will, the collective understanding of each other. They’ve got to be there for us to play at our best. There have been times where really good shot making nights have been a deodorant for other flaws.”
With Carlisle mixing and matching, Mayo started strong as the go-to guy while Nowitzki was out but wilted under the weight of more attention from opposing defenses. Collison couldn’t keep the starting job and eventually lost it for good to 37-year-old Mike James when Carlisle decided Collison was a better threat off the bench.
Brand and Carter provided energy and occasional scoring punch as reserves, but Kaman didn’t play good enough defense to stay in Carlisle’s heavy rotation. When Kaman finally figured it out – getting 26 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in easily his best game Sunday at Portland <0x2014> it was too late.
“We’re all at fault here,” said Shawn Marion, who had another steady season in scoring, rebounding and defense. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Once Nowitzki regained something a little closer to 2011 form, the Mavericks had trouble closing out games against good teams and sometimes found ways to lose to bad ones, although they did win at a 50-game pace over the final third of the season.
Dallas’ loss to Phoenix unexpectedly pushed the playoff elimination up at least a couple of days and came to symbolize the season. The Mavericks let an inferior team take leads and couldn’t sustain a push each time it looked like they would take control. And in the closing minutes, the Suns made several big plays – and Dallas didn’t.
“In a nutshell, pretty much,” said Marion, who led the Mavericks with 22 points and nine rebounds against the Suns. “Up and down. Not consistent. It’s been frustrating. It’s like we’ve always been right there. We’ve always had a chance and kept falling short.”
Now all the Mavericks have to play for is a 13th consecutive winning season.