Neither the Dallas Mavericks nor the Boston Celtics will enter the playoffs as championship favorites, but both veteran-laden division leaders are trying to prove they can still make deep postseason runs.
While the Celtics look for a fourth consecutive win as they continue their road trip Saturday night in Dallas, the Mavericks will be trying to close their homestand with a 15th victory in 16 games.
Dallas (46-22) may be the more likely club to make noise this spring based on its impressive recent play. The Mavs saw their 13-game winning streak end in a shocking 128-94 home loss to the New York Knicks last Saturday, but they bounced back Wednesday by beating Chicago 113-106.
Newcomer Caron Butler scored a team-high 27 points to help build a big lead, although Dallas squandered much of an 18-point fourth-quarter advantage before finishing off the Bulls.
"We've got to get better at closing out games," reserve guard Jose Juan Barea said. "But as long as we keep getting those leads and as long as we keep getting Ws, it's all fine."
Dallas has a 4 1/2-game cushion on San Antonio in the Southwest Division, and trails Denver by one-half game for second place in the Western Conference.
It should help the Mavs having Jason Terry back in the lineup after the high-scoring reserve missed five games following facial surgery. Terry wore a clear plastic mask Wednesday and was held to nine points - about eight below his season average - in 25 minutes.
"He's a factor on the floor because of all the attention he draws," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "He changes the geometry of the rest of the players. Even when he's not scoring, he's a factor."
The win over the Bulls was Dallas' only game in the last six days, but the club's schedule will get significantly busier down the stretch. Starting Saturday, the Mavs play three games in four nights and eight in the next 13 days.
"From here on out ... the games just keep coming till the rest of the season and it should be fun," said star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who had 37 points in a 99-90 win at Boston on Jan. 18, snapping Dallas' four-game losing streak in this series.
Garnett was injured for the Jan. 18 loss - one of 10 games he had to sit out during the Celtics' 13-16 stretch between Christmas Day and the end of February, as the durability of Boston's aging core came into question.
The Celtics (44-24) have recovered to go 8-3 in March, reestablishing a double-digit lead in the Atlantic Division and pulling into a third-place tie with Atlanta in the East. Perhaps their most impressive win this month was Friday night's 94-87 victory at Houston.
Paul Pierce had 26 points, following up a 29-point effort in Wednesday's win over the Knicks, as Boston held the Rockets to 39.5 percent shooting.
The Celtics are 12-0 when their opponents shoot under 40 percent, but they're not achieving the feat as often as they used to; over the previous two seasons, they were a combined 46-4 when that happened. Allen blamed Boston's defensive problems on the team's performance at the other end.
"Executing offensively, that's been our Achilles' heel, when we've been bad," Allen said. "With bad offense, you put teams in transition, and we don't give our defense a chance."
The Celtics still have the NBA's second-best road record at 23-12, trailing only Cleveland's 25-11 mark.
"The road is hostile," Garnett said. "You expect the worst, and that's what it is. Maybe we're too confident at home."