After some initial struggles, the Dallas Mavericks appear to be finding their way in their first season under coach Rick Carlisle.
The opposite has been the case for the Phoenix Suns, who have hit a rough patch after an auspicious beginning to Terry Porter’s tenure on the bench.
The Mavericks seek their eighth win in nine games on Thursday night when they host the struggling Suns in a matchup between perennial contenders still adjusting to their new coaches.
Dallas (9-8) lost seven of its first nine games under Carlisle, who was hired in the offseason following the firing of Avery Johnson - a 50-game winner in each of his three full seasons with the Mavericks.
However, after the slow start - the team’s worst since 1998-99 - the Mavericks have won seven of eight to re-establish themselves as contenders in the West. Their lone loss in that stretch came on the road against the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
The Mavericks appeared to be en route to another defeat Tuesday, when they trailed the Los Angeles Clippers by 15 points early in the fourth quarter before mounting a furious comeback. Jose Juan Barea scored nine of his 15 points in the period and capped the rally with a game-winning 3-pointer with 50.2 seconds left as Dallas stole a 100-98 victory.
“It was unorthodox really all night,” said Carlisle, whose team trailed the entire game before Barea’s last shot. “It was just a search for some energy, a spark at the defensive end. …. For a four-minute stretch we caught lightning in a bottle and found some magic.”
That’s what the Suns (11-8) are looking for after dropping three straight for the first time this season. Phoenix won eight of its first 11 games under Porter after four straight 50-win seasons under Mike D’Antoni, but has lost five of eight since the hot start.
The Suns haven’t always been at full strength during their skid.
Two-time MVP Steve Nash missed Friday’s loss to Miami with a bruised thigh, and sat out Wednesday night’s 104-91 defeat at New Orleans with flu-like symptoms. The Suns are averaging 101.3 points when Nash plays, compared with 93.3 points in the three games he’s missed this season.
Shaquille O’Neal was also inactive Wednesday as part of Porter’s plan to avoid playing him back-to-back nights to keep him healthy for the postseason. O’Neal is expected to start against the Mavericks, while Nash will likely be a gametime decision.
Without both players Wednesday, Phoenix gave up 17 offensive rebounds and 28 second-chance points, and got outscored 30-10 at the free-throw line.
“I thought we came out and played pretty good tonight, we just didn’t have enough at the end,” Porter said. “Offensive rebounds really hurt us, and those guys got to the line a lot.”
Dallas took two of three meetings with the Suns last season, including the only one at the American Airlines Center.
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, averaging 26.4 points and 11.0 rebounds in his last eight games, averaged 33.0 points and 11.0 boards against the Suns in last season’s series.
Nash, who played in Dallas for six seasons and remains close with Nowitzki, has averaged 23.2 points and 11.6 assists in 25 games - including postseason - against his former team since signing with Phoenix before the 2004-05 season.