DALLAS — If it seemed too good to be true, it was.
The Bulls (39-32) had everything going -- Nate Robinson (25 points) was perfect from behind the three-point arc, Carlos Boozer (25 points, 11 rebounds) had it rolling, All-Star Luol Deng (25 points, seven rebounds) was his all-around self -- and the visitors had a double-digit lead with over four minutes to play before squandering it and falling to the Mavericks (36-37), 100-98, Saturday afternoon at the American Airlines Center.
Another quick start by Boozer propelled the Bulls in the early going of the matinee game, but the play of opposing power forward Dirk Nowitzki (35 points, seven rebounds), a future Hall of Famer, ensured that it was a close-knit affair.
Veteran center Nazr Mohammed, who started in place of injured All-Star Joakim Noah for the fourth consecutive contest, showed off his array of skills by snagging a defensive rebound, pushing the ball on a delayed fast break and finding Jimmy Butler — the Texas native started in place of the injured Marco Belinelli for a third straight time — for a transition dunk.
The game remained tight and while All-Star Luol Deng made his presence felt for the Bulls, his small-forward counterpart, Chicago-area native Shawn Marion (10 points, eight rebounds) made an early impact for the hosts with his typically high activity level on both ends of the floor.
The visitors got a late first-quarter offensive boost from Nate Robinson, but after the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 24-23.
Boozer continued to lead the way for the visitors early in the second frame — swiping the ball from former Bulls draft pick Elton Brand to start a fast break, then running the floor to clean up the miss in transition was a display of his effort level — before getting his first breather of the contest.
Deng then took over Noah’s role as the Bulls’ top option and while his all-around game was effective, the Mavericks continued to be powered by Nowitzki, whose post-up ability and accurate range gave the undersized guests fits and helped the hosts build a slim cushion, despite top reserve Taj Gibson’s strong interior play.
With the likes of former All-Star Vince Carter (17 points) and athletic big man Brandan Wright coming off the bench to lift Dallas, the Mavericks seemed to have taken control of the contest, but the combination of Duke products Boozer and Deng, as well as Robinson’s playmaking, allowed the Bulls to overtake their hosts.
At the intermission, the Bulls clung to a 56-53 advantage, with another late-period spurt, led by the always-energetic Robinson, keeping them in front.
After the break, Boozer continued his aggressive approach and combined with the Bulls’ stingy defense, it resulted in a double-digit edge for the visitors, who began the second half on a 12-2 run.
[Watch: Boozer [accidentally] punches referee Dan Crawford]
An increased focus on Nowitzki — making him play in a crowd instead of guarding him with single coverage — was a major factor in the Bulls building a comfortable winning margin, as was the visitors’ overall gritty approach, which contrasted with the Mavericks’ offense-dominant style of play.
Kirk Hinrich (10 points, six assists), not known for being a prolific scoring threat, also made solid contributions on the offensive end of the floor, but upon him exiting the contest, Dallas began to gradually chip away at the deficit as the Bulls’ offense started to stagnate.
Despite a scoreless third quarter from Nowitzki and shooting guard O.J. Mayo continuing to struggle — the long-rumored Bulls target shot 0-for-9 from the field through three periods of play — Carter, Marion and backup point guard Darren Collison helped the Mavericks storm back into the game and heading into the final stanza, it was knotted up at 75 apiece.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, Hinrich returned to the lineup, putting Robinson off the ball and the move paid immediate dividends, as the diminutive scorer was freed up to do what he does best and the floor general handled shot-distribution responsibilities, leading to the Bulls acquiring some breathing room early in the period.
Robinson went on an individual 8-0 run to start the frame and even after the hosts got on the board, he knocked down four three-pointers in the frame — including an incredibly deep bomb to beat the shot clock — making him a perfect 7-for-7 on the afternoon.
Deng also joined in the fun, knocking down a pair of triples, but Dallas refused to go away and it was a single-digit affair as the game entered its stretch run, partially due to the efficient Nowitzki’s scoring.
With 15.9 seconds remaining, it was a one-point game, 98-97, when Butler was fouled and missed a pair of free throws, giving the hosts another opportunity, which they took advantage of as Nowitzki buried another triple with 2.9 seconds to go, giving the Mavericks a two-point lead, before the final play, in which Robinson's deep two-point attempt was off the mark.