I'm fascinated by Mount Everest and absolutely bow down to those who have reached its peak. It remains at the, ahem, top of my bucket list.
Watching the Dallas Mavericks lose again yesterday -- this time to the lowly 15-26 Detroit Pistons by 14 -- I'm left to equate their demise (that's six straight losses and counting) to a mountain-climbing expedition.
In 2006 the Mavs -- led by veteran Sherpas Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Mark Cuban -- got within inches of the summit, only to lose their grip, fall and slide all the way back in one of the biggest almoooosts in the history of sports.
Since then every year is not only a physical challenge, but more so a psychological one. It's a long climb to the top and a big part of the process is believing you can summit.
This year, stronger and more prepared than at any time since '06, the Mavericks began making the trek and looked incredibly strong. Then, suddenly, two of their best climbers fell.
One would get back up. One wouldn't.
With Caron Butler out for the season, the Mavericks have been psychologically gutted. Sure Dirk is back and yesterday poured in 32 points, but this isn't the same team that started 23-5 and it won't be without Butler.
Take the two best players off any team in the NBA and there will be significant slippage. Still, you'd like to think the Mavs -- as I feel certain the Spurs would somehow be -- are strong enough to at least keep from total cratering just because their dynamic has been temporarily altered.
To me right now Dallas looks and plays like a team that doesn't believe it can reach the top of the mountain. The Spurs have left them at base camp and unfortunately the Mavs' ultimate uncertainty about the long-term has produced a visible sagging of physical effort in the here and now.
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In other words, the Mavs have stopped climbing.
Head coach Rick Carlisle sees it too.
"Unfortunately, we caved," Carlisle told reporters after the 103-89 loss. "Our competitive level has got to come up, it's as simple as that. What happened in the second half is not acceptable."