DALLAS (AP) -Trading for Jason Kidd was supposed to make the Dallas Mavericks championship contenders. First, they better make sure to qualify for the playoffs.
The Mavericks are 4-5 since pairing the All-Star point guard with the reigning MVP, Dirk Nowitzki. The rut includes three straight losses and four of five, dropping Dallas to seventh in the Western Conference.
The Mavs went into Friday night's action just two games ahead of the Denver Nuggets for the dreaded ninth spot, the one that comes with lottery balls instead of a shot at the title.
After blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA finals, then winning 67 games but getting bounced from the first round in 2007, missing the postseason in 2008 - after trading for Kidd - would really be a crusher for Mark Cuban's club.
As bad as it seems, there is a plausible explanation for the struggles.
Every loss since Kidd arrived has been to a team ahead of the Mavs in the West. That included three road games against division leaders in a five-day span, a run that would be brutal even for an established club, much less one that's breaking in a new floor leader.
As cruel as the schedule was the last few weeks, payback is coming. Quickly.
Eight of Dallas' next nine games are at home. The only exception is a visit to Miami, which has the league's worst record.
The biggest comfort for the Mavericks is that they won't face a team with a winning record until March 18. So if they are going to turn into the kind of team they were expecting to become, this is the time to start.
``We have to have a big performance to snap out of this thing,'' guard Jason Terry said. ``Everyone has to look at themselves and see what each individual can do better within the team concept. We have to get rolling.''
Coach Avery Johnson is eager to make the most of this schedule lull. Dallas also has at least one day between every game until March 30-31, giving him plenty of opportunities for practices, film sessions and any other type of bonding he might want to try.
``I think this time will give us a chance to hopefully get our feet planted,'' he said.
r they've made any progress.
Dallas opened its recent tour of division leaders with a 3-point loss in San Antonio. The Mavs had a chance to tie in the closing seconds and Johnson chose to do so with Kidd on the bench the final 35 seconds.
After beating Sacramento at home the next night, the Mavericks went to Los Angeles and took the Lakers to overtime. Then they went to Utah for their fourth game in five nights. They were ragged early, getting down by 21. But they managed to claw back and lead by three in the fourth quarter. They couldn't sustain it, but Johnson came away feeling pretty good about the effort.
``I'm not saying I like second place, but I like a lot of what I saw in three of our recent road games,'' Johnson said. ``I like what I saw in terms of the grittiness. I like a lot of our mental toughness.''
Dallas returned home Thursday night but was without Nowitzki because of a suspension. The Mavericks looked lost without their top scorer and rebounder. It didn't help that they were playing a Houston club that had won 16 in a row and was eager to get back at Dallas for losses in all three previous meetings this season. They trailed by 18 after three quarters and couldn't fight back.
``We've got to look at all of our mistakes tonight and get better for Saturday,'' Kidd said.
Ah, yes. Saturday, when the parade of sub-.500 clubs starts with a tricky foe - Kidd's old team, New Jersey. Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson likely will be eager to show they're doing just fine without him. And ex-Mav Devin Harris should be even more excited to show Cuban and Johnson they made a mistake by giving up on him.
``We need a big, big performance Saturday night,'' Terry said.

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