Crucial week could determine Mavs' fate
It seemed a little premature for Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to tell his team nine days ago the playoff race had begun, but it's worked out pretty well. The Mavs finished a stretch of eight games against current playoff qualifiers with a 5-3 record and now sit in fifth place in the Western Conference heading into Monday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
A remarkable comeback win in Orlando on Friday could serve as a springboard for a sprint to the finish. Playing in his second game since missing nearly two months with a broken finger, guard Delonte West sparked the win with 15 points and five assists (much of it coming in the fourth quarter). The Mavs have missed West's attitude just as much as his scoring and superb defense. In fact, he was playing so well Friday that Carlisle decided to leave Kidd on the bench in crunch time.
This is a team that thrived on being able to erase deficits in the fourth quarter last season. The Mavs were 12-18 in the regular season when trailing after three quarters, a remarkable achievement. With the win Friday, the Mavs improved to 2-19 in those situations this season.
The Mavs trail the Clippers by one and a half games for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. And the American Airlines Center has been a house of horrors for Los Angeles and its star power forward Blake Griffin. The Mavs do an excellent job of clogging up the lane on him, and Shawn Marion is capable of making life difficult for Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Center Brendan Haywood gives Griffin trouble because he refuses to bite on a lot of his ball and head fakes.
With the logjam in the Western Conference standings, this becomes perhaps the most important week of the season for the Mavs. They will host the No. 6-seeded Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday before Portland comes to town Friday. Dallas has to travel to Memphis for a game Saturday. If they can beat the Clippers and then win two of the next three games after that, the Mavs will have a much firmer grip on a playoff spot with nine games to play.
You have to think that Memphis will put things together at some point before the playoffs, although the team has gone 4-5 since Zach Randolph returned to the lineup. The Grizzlies are a ridiculously tough matchup for the Mavs, but Carlisle's not going to look past Lob City.
"These guys can hit their head on the rim, easy," said the coach. "We're just trying to touch the rim."
But as talented and entertaining as they are, the Clippers don't have the makeup of a team that could go deep in the playoffs. For starters, it doesn't seem like coach Vinny Del Negro has a ton of respect from his players. And when teams try to slow things down in the playoffs, some of the Clippers' athleticism could be neutralized.
The Mavs also need some wins this week to establish more of an identity at home. Going 19-8 at the American Airlines Center hasn't impressed anyone — especially since Dallas has a miserable 11-15 record on the road.
"We got a huge week here," Carlisle told reporters Sunday. "We've got to pick our game up, and we've got to be good at home. There's a lot to be decided. This week is going to go a long way toward a lot of those scenarios."
Mavs forward Lamar Odom put together back-to-back solid games before struggling against the Magic on Friday. He was sent home Sunday with a fever, so his status is uncertain for the Clippers game. But if the Mavs could get something close to a consistent effort from Odom in addition to the fierce play of West, there's no reason they can't make a run in the playoffs.
It's not like anyone outside of Jason Terry was predicting a title for the Mavs at this point last season. A lot of folks predicted the Mavs to lose in the first round to Portland and then in the second round to the Lakers. A title run seems far-fetched right now because Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea aren't walking through that door in the next couple of weeks.
But as long as Dirk Nowitzki and Terry are on this roster, teams aren't going to look past the Mavs. This looked like a lost cause two weeks ago, but things have changed.
The return of Haywood and West and at least a brief appearance from an engaged Odom have changed the atmosphere around this team. No one should go out on a limb and predict a title, but a nice playoff run's not out of the question.