DALLAS – The Mavs’ 2015 Playoffs rallying cry was waiting to be mocked.
“We Are One?” How about, “We Are Done?”
But Dallas, despite falling down by nine in the first quarter of Sunday’s Game Four before rallying to outscore Houston by 28 points in the next two periods on the way to a stay-alive 121-109 win, demonstrated the sort of “basketball soul” too often absent during the failed “Rondo Era” here. And his abrupt departure — the unprecedented quitting on a team by a “leader” in the middle of a playoff series — seems to have taken a weight of the shoulders of the burdened Mavs.
But coach Rick Carlisle brought together whichever Mavs still wanted to be here (all the non-Rondos) and persuaded them to play 48 minutes of inspired and tenacious basketball. Even though they are seriously undermanned now without Rondo and the injured Chandler Parsons and reliant on supplementary guys like Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Al-Farouq Aminu (people with “basketball souls”) to drive the Mavs’ engine.
“Our guys were in this to fight this thing out to the end,” Carlisle said. “Everybody’s staying ready and we’re staying aggressive.”
That certainly includes Monta Ellis, who led the way for Dallas with 31 points and looked like the Monta that Dallas watched electrify the AAC so often before the ill-fated Rondo trade. Ellis, who shot 62 percent from the field, will head into Game Five after having put together arguably his best back-to-back performances since mid-December.
“We just weren’t ready to go home,” Ellis said. “We came together before the game said we were gonna leave it all on the court, and we did.”
Dirk Nowitzki was important, too, closing things out for Dallas in the fourth by scoring 10 points en route to a 16-point, eight-rebound performance; stuff that reminds us to cherish his brilliant work here because it cannot go on forever.
But the series does go on. Carlisle punctuated the night by goofing on his Game 3 postgame speech, when his criticism of the refs in that physical loss earned him a $25,000 fine. In this postgame speech, he slapped a huge piece of white tape over his mouth … but only after saying, “It’s a long game, and our guys were in this to fight this thing out to the end.”
And now they fight again, because the “long game” just lengthened the series.
Houston will take its 3-1 series lead back home to the Toyota Center, and with it the annual NBA playoff debate about who now shoulders the pressure. Is it on the Rockets to close out the series, needing repeat-performances-plus from Sunday top dogs James Harden (who led the Rockets with 24 points on 46.6-percent shooting) and Josh Smith and Corey Brewer (big impacts once again, combining for 45 points)? Or is there a certain level of embarrassment for this year’s Mavs to ultimately serve as a postseason afterthought?
Dallas out-rebounded Houston, 52-38, one more example of how it simply wanted it more on Sunday night. And might just want some more.