OKLAHOMA CITY — For the second night in a row, the Mavericks had one of the NBA’s elite teams right where they wanted them.
Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t in the Mavericks’ crosshairs, but they certainly were scoped in and vulnerable.
Then, just as the previous night against Cleveland, a third quarter gone bad disarmed the Mavericks.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George — looking every bit like they don’t really need the injured Carmelo Anthony (sore back) — took charge and buried the Mavericks in the third quarter on the way to a 112-99 victory Sunday night.
It’s almost as if there are too many fires to try to stomp out right now for the Mavericks. If the third quarter didn’t get them, their 20 turnovers did. If they find a way to rebound well, as they did against the Thunder, their 3-point shooting abandons them.
And then there is the revolving door at center that still doesn’t include Nerlens Noel. But more on that in a moment.
If ever there is a good time to be catching teams like the Thunder and Cleveland, which beat the Mavericks by seven Saturday, this is it.
The Thunder were under .500 coming into Sunday’s meeting, just as the Cavaliers were Saturday. And they clearly have yet to mesh with such impactful newcomers as George and Anthony joining forces with Westbrook.
They all looked just fine in the second half Sunday as Westbrook and George combined for 32 of the Thunder’s 39 third-quarter points, and the Mavericks never threatened in the fourth.
“In Washington, we played a forceful third quarter,” coach Rick Carlisle said of the most recent of the Mavericks’ two wins against 12 losses. “I don’t know if we won it, but we maintained. In other recent games, we’re struggling in the third. And we got to fix it. It’s got to become a mentality. We just got to do better in all areas. Missed shots are something that’s just going to happen in the NBA. You can’t bellyache about missed shots. But giving up 39 in the third, that was the game.”
Carlisle continued to use a platoon system at center that started with Dirk Nowitzki, then included Salah Mejri and Dwight Powell.
Noel was left out — until Carlisle put him in the game with 2 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. For a player who has been a starting-caliber center at times in his career, that could be perceived as a slight by the coach.
To his credit, Noel took the high road when asked about it by The News.
“I wouldn’t say it’s insulting,” said Noel, who didn’t even play at all on Saturday against the Cavaliers. “I just have to look out for my body and make sure I’m ready to go after sitting the whole game. It’s just about me being ready at all times. I just want to be smart about it.”
It’s a fair concern when a player has been sitting for 22 minutes of game-clock time, which translates into at least 45 minutes in real time.
Noel, who is trying to work on his market value for when he will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, is playing on a one-year qualifying offer for about $4.2-million.
It’s just another one of those issues that crops up when a team is 10 games under .500 and the season isn’t yet a month old.
It wasn’t like the Mavericks didn’t show signs of life. They were tied with the Thunder early in the third quarter. Harrison Barnes was on his way to his second consecutive double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
But the negatives far outweighed the positives. Wesley Matthews had his worst shooting night of the season, going 0 for 9 from the field, five of those misses coming from beyond the 3-point arc.
The Mavericks were terrible overall from 3-point land, hitting just 29.7 percent.
And so, the season is quickly slipping away, just like the games against good teams that the Mavericks have been in position to win.
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