Back-to-back games in the NBA are never fun. And for the Dallas Mavericks, the team’s slow finish against the San Antonio Spurs led to a slow start against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night. Which ultimately led to the 133-108 loss.

“No excuses, Rough week, but that is just part of the NBA. Everyone is going to go through it at some point,” head coach Rick Carlisle said after the loss on Saturday night.

“…We have no excuses. They had more juice. We obviously missed KP [Porzingis] and our other four guys, but everyone is going through something.”

Dallas wrapped up a stretch that saw the team play five games in seven days. The NBA is a grind. And each game is taxing in its own way. At the end of the game against the Spurs, and during the entire game against the Rockets, Dallas looked tired. Can you really blame them? It’s a tall task to ask a short-handed team to get up and play a regular NBA schedule. Dallas – shorthanded and all – had to get up and play a condensed schedule that featured three games on the road before returning home on the back end of a Texas back-to-back.

Dallas’ defensive problems:

The Mavs looked a step too slow early. Both Eric Gordon and DeMarcus Cousins found the fountain of youth as the not so dynamic duo found life early in the game. And by halftime, Dallas gave up 70 points – the most the Rockets have scored in a half all season.

What was staggering was the rate the Mavericks were giving up open threes to Rockets players. The closeouts to shooters were nonexistent. And the late defensive rotations were just a step too late. This team was clearly playing with heavy legs early, and there wasn’t much Carlisle could do to inspire effort on the defensive side of the floor. By halftime alone, Dallas gave up 17 and 19 points respectively to Cousins and Gordon.

Early in the third quarter, it looked as though Dallas might climb back into the game, but the Rockets small-ball lineup, without Cousins on the floor, simply out hustled the Mavericks and pulled away again.

“We just relaxed,” Doncic said after the game. “We came back, and then we just relaxed in the second half.”

By the end of the game, Gordon and Cousins tallied 33 and 38 points each.

The defense is what separates good teams from great teams. Great teams give effort on a nightly basis. And in a way, the Mavs are being confronted with the reality that they are far from where they want to be as a team come playoff time. It’s still early in the season, but each passing game is another one you can’t get back as a team. And in a year where the NBA is utilizing a play-in tournament, seeding matters. Dallas will have to find a way to compete at a high level, even on the back of back-to-backs because that is what every team is going through right now.

Rookie spotlight:

Due to the blowout nature of the game, by the fourth quarter, the Mavs emptied the bench, giving rookies Tyler Bey, Tyrell Terry, and Josh Green a chance at extended minutes.

All three rookies scored in tonight’s game. And more impressively, they didn’t look completely out of sorts on an NBA floor.

Look at Green’s first NBA three for example:

It was impressive seeing Tyler Bey hold his own on the defensive end. In seven minutes of action, he accounted for one block. He also showcased his activity around the rim and his natural ability to affect shots.

Bey is no slouch. Given more time, he can be a good NBA player in his role going forward for Dallas. The same goes for Green and Terry. These three guys can be rotational players for Dallas in a few years. Having the patience to wait for their development will be the key.

Looking ahead for Dallas:

The Mavericks dropped another game at home, which isn’t surprising. Dallas hasn’t been a very good home team all year (2-3 at home on the season). Rotation center Boban Marjanović attributes it to the lack of fans at the games, and maybe that does play a part. Fans are the heart of basketball culture.

“Because of no fans, we miss that energy,” Marjanovic said after the game. “We need to come with a mindset that is ready to play.”

Looking ahead to Dallas’ game on Monday, fans or no fans, the team will have to bring it for 48 full minutes. Slowing down the Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic will be a job done by a committee. Though Doncic scored 26 points and dished out eight assists he needs to remain engaged the entire game. That is what all great leaders do in the league. Dallas is back to playing .500 basketball, but the danger in that is that it can lead to complacency. The Nuggets will be a test, but it’s one the Mavs can definitely pass.

Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.