Alvin Gentry wasn’t wrong. Fearing the Dallas Mavericks, apparently, was appropriate.
Dallas owns the most losses in the Western Conference, and after a destructive 128-120 win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, still does. Since Christmas Day, the 25-loss Mavericks have exhibited life, taking down the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers in consecutive games to move to 11 wins prior to Friday’s matinee.
Then, Friday inside the Smoothie King Center, No. 12 for Dallas seemed inevitable from tipoff.
The Mavericks throttled the Pelicans for 77 first-half points, their highest-scoring first half since 2009 and the second-most points New Orleans has allowed in an opening half in franchise history, and the Pelicans showed little life to rebound from an irrecoverable sluggish start until it was too late.
"You give up 77 in the first half," Gentry said, "and you're going to put yourself in harm's way."
When asked before Friday’s game how to prepare for a team like Dallas, one with so many losses, Gentry responded with an answer intended not to overlook the Mavericks, regardless of their early-season failings.
“I tell our guys, you should have appropriate fear,” the coach said.
“I couldn’t tell you what their record is right now anyway,” the coach added. “I just know that they have the capabilities of beating Toronto and Indiana on the road — because they just did … Those are two playoff teams for sure. If they’re capable of doing that, they’re capable of beating anybody in the league.”
Fear was appropriate.
Friday, tucked in the Pelicans’ cozy New Orleans nest with Sugar Bowl festivities pulsating the city’s weekend ahead, the Pelicans’ offense remained constipated through two quarters and Dallas’ thrived.
The Mavericks (12-25) ended New Orleans’ three-game winning streak behind the 3-point line, converting a monstrous, franchise-record 22 of 39 from beyond the arc.
"They hit some unbelievable shots," said Rajon Rondo, who sat for the entirety of Friday's fourth quarter in a 19-minute outing. "They hit some wide-open looks. They were hot."
"They got off to a great start shooting the basketball," Gentry said. "When you get that kind of separation, from our standpoint, now we've got to play almost a perfect game to get back."
New Orleans’ quest to a fourth-consecutive win was dramatically slowed throughout all of the first quarter. Sluggishly, the Pelicans (18-17) shot a measly 8 of 24 from the field and missed all eight 3-point attempts in the opening period.
”We didn’t have any energy,” Anthony Davis said. “We let them get comfortable.”
New Orleans had won three consecutive games before Friday’s loss, which doomed the streak that claimed defensively-dominant wins at the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat and against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.
The run, which predated Christmas Day, was steered by New Orleans’ dexterous and diverse offense, relying on collapsed defenses to free 3-point shooters for the highest-grossing points on the floor. New Orleans entered Friday’s game No. 1 in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 38.8 percent.
Yes, the Pelicans, statistically, had shot better beyond the trendy 3-point arc than the juggernaut Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
That was until Friday.
New Orleans made just four of 15 3-point attempts in the first half and were 8 of 31 from long range throughout the contest, a recognizably poor number by any standard or NBA metric.
However, in fight-back mode throughout the second half, New Orleans flattened Dallas’ lead to eight points after a resurgent 41-point third quarter.
Behind 88 combined points from Davis, Cousins and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans cut Dallas’ lead under 10 points after three periods and a comeback was brewing.
New Orleans continued to linger, flirting next to small, single-digit deficits throughout the final quarter.
Trailing by just three with 3:39 remaining before the final horn, the Pelicans weren’t able to bust through.
Contending for precious Western Conference postseason slots, losses like Friday's can be detrimental to a potential playoff push, Gentry said. The Pelicans have dropped home games this season to the Magic, Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks — all of which have more than 20 losses.
This one falls into that same category.
"I think so," Gentry said. "It's just a game that you can't afford to lose."
For them, this one stings.
"It sucks," Cousins said.