Posted by Matt Moore
The Dallas Mavericks are in-between worlds right now. Like all of the top teams in the league, they're patiently waiting for the playoffs, waiting for the real games to begin. Middle-March through middle-April is a war of attrition, and after losing Caron Butler to a ruptured patellar tendon, the Mavericks are in no condition to take on more casualties.
But there is the other side of it. You want to hit your stride right now. And the Mavericks aren't there. They've gone .500 over their last 16 games, including a pair of losses to Portland, a pair of losses to the Lakers, and losses to the Spurs, Hornets, and Grizzlies, all of whom they could see in the playoffs at one point or another. It's beginning to feel eerily similar to the Mavericks team we've come to know year after year. Monsters of the regular season, wilt down the stretch, kicked out of the first or second round in stunning fashion. This after a start to the year that had many whispering about being Finals contenders. After all, the Lakers have not met Dirk Nowitzki and his Mavericks in the playoffs during their run with the current core, and if anyone can match Pau Gasol's production, it's the Big German Machine. But now they're the team Portland and New Orleans are aiming for, trying to join the Warriors and Spurs as teams in the past four years to eliminate the Mavericks in the first round.
But there is one differential here. The Mavericks know where they need to improve. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram :
"We didn't shoot the ball well [the last three games] and so we spent some extra time today on shooting," Carlisle said. "Our first half against Portland was a setback. The rest of the trip I thought we played solidly on defense."via Stretch run is no time to slow down | Mavericks/NBA | Sports News and Videos on the Dallas Co... .
As the Mavs prepare for Wednesday's home game against Denver, they do so knowing that they have to pick up the pace on the offensive end of the floor.
"I think defensively it was actually a decent trip for us," Nowitzki said. "We've been sliding defensively here in the new year."
Oddly enough, the Mavericks are playing Denver on Wednesday night for the right not to play them, in a way. A win would go a long way towards cementing Dallas as the No. 3 seed in the West. (Update: Mavs lose 104-96 to Denver, now are just a game above OKC for that No.3 seed.) But bigger than that is Dallas continuing to get their defense back in line. In the past 16 games, the Mavericks allowed 104 points per 100 possesions, which is significantly worse than their 10th ranked season defense in that category (allowing 102.7). What's most concerning, however, is the past four games of that road trip, which saw them give up an average of 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which is terrible on a whole other level. Yes, the Lakers game was an exception, but they also gave up over 115 per 100 possessions to the Blazers. (Update: The Mavs gave up a 114 efficiency Wednesday night to the Nuggets.) The Mavericks have to get back to more solid defense.
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Lost in the look at their record is the fact that Dallas dropped two back-to-back to Golden State and Portland at the end of a four game road trip. Which at the end of the season is a recipe for slogging off games. Our own Ben Golliver isn't concerned about Dallas , and he's right, this team still has the ability to buckle down and play elite ball in the Western Conference. Dirk Nowitzki is still one of the best competitors in the game, Jason Kidd has played surprisingly well this season, they have center depth for the first time in years, and when clicking, are one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
But at some point they have to get into playoff gear. Wednesday night presents a fine opportunity to do so against the Nuggets. The Nuggets have the top offense in the land. The Mavericks need to find ways to exploit the talent advantages they have. Oklahoma City found out Tuesday night how stiff of a counter-punch the Nuggets can land. If the Mavericks don't right their defensive ship and get their heads together, they could be seeing a lost more of the Nuggets in the first round, an even scarier first-round prospect than Portland, Memphis, or New Orleans. Dallas knows what it needs to do. Getting there is another question.
Deciphering whether the Mavericks are a contender getting their legs under them or an albatross crashing to the finish line is a puzzle that will be wrought between now and the end of their season. But uncertainty has seldom held the promise of success.