(AP) – Dirk Nowitzki joked after a loss to San Antonio that the Mavericks don’t "want to see anyone" in the playoffs, given their recent record against winning teams.
Dallas hasn’t beaten any of its likely first-round opponents in more than two months – and that’s assuming the Mavericks get in after a 12-year streak of reaching the playoffs ended last season.
At the moment, Dallas (36-25) is one of four teams in a tight battle for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference.
And yes, Nowitzki says, the Mavericks need to beat Portland on Friday. Or Oklahoma City when they play twice in a span of nine days. Or the Los Angeles Clippers in a pair of games a week apart.
"Not necessarily just for confidence but also because we want to stay in the playoff hunt," Nowitzki said. "If we keep losing against the good teams, most of our games left are against teams with winning records. We’ve got to keep winning at a high clip if we want to make it and so the pressure’s on. You gotta love it."
A 112-106 loss to the Spurs on Sunday dropped Dallas to 0-6 against the top five teams in the West since a victory against Houston on Dec. 23.
Since then, the Mavericks have blown big leads at home against the Rockets and Clippers. They’ve fallen 38 points behind the Trail Blazers, also at home. They haven’t been able to get a substantial lead against the Spurs.
All of which means nothing to coach Rick Carlisle because all he sees is Wednesday night’s game at Denver, which has been in free fall because of injuries but finally has point guard Ty Lawson back.
"The analysis of which teams are better ones and all that, I mean, we’re going to see them when we see them," Carlisle said. "Right now, we’ve got to focus on Denver."
It might appear easy for the Mavs to overlook the Nuggets, who have dropped six in a row and 11 of 12 after a 132-128 loss to Minnesota on Monday. However, Denver won its first two matchups with Dallas this season in the span of three days late in November and has won four of five in the series.
The Nuggets (25-34) have tumbled 10 games back in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 23 contests remaining. Denver hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2003.
"Just have to play harder, harder on defense," Lawson said. "Come out with a sense of urgency."
After the Nuggets, the Mavericks get the Blazers at home, followed two nights later by East-leading Indiana. The Pacers actually represent the last impressive win for Dallas in the final game before the break.
The victory at Indiana came during a 10-2 stretch for Dallas, but eight of the wins were against teams with losing records. After four straight wins against sub-.500 teams, the Mavericks had a big lead early against Chicago on Friday but let the Bulls pull away in the fourth quarter.
Now Dallas has lost two straight to winning teams. After facing the Nuggets, the Mavericks get three straight winning teams. That happens again when they figure to be battling for a playoff berth in the last three games, including the finale at Memphis, one of the teams in the battle for the final three spots.
"You either rise to the challenge or you don’t," Carlisle said. "And right now our mindset is we’ve got to rise above all challenges, but we’ve got to do it collectively."
To Carlisle, that means help for Nowitzki, who is the closest he’s been to championship form since Dallas beat Miami for the title in 2011.
Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Devin Harris give the Mavericks a better backcourt than they did when they missed the playoffs a year ago, and Vince Carter has been a go-to scorer more often as the sixth man after a slow start to the season.
New center Sam Dalembert’s production figures strongly in Dallas’ chances, and a team that has been defensively challenged at times will lean on Shawn Marion to shore up that area.
"Every game here is huge and we know it," Nowitzki said.