By Rob Mahoney
Thursday marked an auspicious occasion for the Mavericks, who had a chance to reach .500, continue to gain ground in their pursuit of the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference and bring a razor's edge to the itchy, bearded pact Dirk Nowitzki and others pledged as a measure of midseason solidarity.
But Friday the Mavs stood bewildered and bewhiskered. All of their March momentum amounted to so very little against a superior team, and Indiana leveraged various (and sizable) advantages to drub the Mavericks 103-78 in Dallas. Every bit of that 25-point margin was earned in the second half, when Dallas' precious opportunity slipped away with clanked jumpers and typically lacking defense. No beards were shaved and, more important, no ground was gained on the Lakers and Jazz in the furious scramble to make the postseason cut.
Nowitzki lamented the loss of a game and a chance to creep up in the standings (via Jeff Caplan of NBA.com):
“Knowing the Lakers lost now [at Milwaukee], we had an opportunity to cut into their lead,” Nowitzki said. “And it sucks. It sucks.”
Shave talk or not, Nowitzki said the Pacers -- who held the Rockets and Mavs on back-to-back nights to 91 and 78 points, and both to under 40 percent shooting -- simply beat Dallas every which way in the second half. Indiana’s stubborn defense held Dallas to 37 second-half points as the Pacers outrebounded the Mavs 55-34.
“I said I didn’t want to jinx it so I didn’t really talk about it much. It is what it is,” Nowitzki said. “They play well. They come in here and beat us. A team like that, obviously, blatantly brings out our weaknesses, that’s why they won. I don’t care if they didn’t want us to shave or not, but they’re a better team.”
Nowitzki is quite right in identifying the Pacers as the better team, and there should be no shame in losing to one of the NBA's best. But at the same time, these are games the Mavs can scant afford to lose. Through Thursday, they trailed the No. 8 Lakers by 1½ games and ninth-place Utah by one game with 10 left. Their remaining games include one at the Lakers on Tuesday and five total against prospective playoff teams. (The Trail Blazers, three games behind the Lakers and facing a difficult but home-heavy schedule, are trying to make it a four-team race.) Impressive as it is that the Mavs have stormed back into contention by going 10-5 this month, they'll have to beat better teams if they intend to validate their plucky determination with a postseason spot.
The Mavs have earned the right to compete for a playoff slot, just as they earned a 13-23 record early this season amid inconsistencies and injuries. This team is right where it should be, given its overall performance. But if Nowitzki and his teammates are to secure the franchise's 13th consecutive playoff berth, they'll have to maintain their jumper-heavy offense and win at least a few games in which they're clearly outclassed.
There's an implicit level of volatility for any team that relies on mid- and long-range shots rather than attacking the basket or getting to the free-throw line. But Dallas has nonetheless been blitzing opponents with that approach of late -- excepting Wednesday's meeting with the best defensive team in the NBA. Much of that can be attributed to Nowitzki's gradual acclimation to a familiar role with new considerations. If it weren't enough for the 34-year-old to mount a midseason comeback and work himself into better physical form, he also had to make sense of how to best operate with an entirely new group of teammates. The second half of Dallas' season has been a prolonged negotiation between incorporating a slowly improving Nowitzki and relying on shaky ball-handlers, but at long last Dirk appears ready to carry his usual load from the block and the elbow:
He's no longer shrugging off potential touches or deferring to teammates; this is Nowitzki as we've come to know and appreciate him. From his renewal, the Mavs have scored at a terrific rate of 107.5 points per 100 possessions in the last 15 games -- a mark on par with that of the Thunder, Nuggets and Rockets over the same stretch. Nowitzki's usage rate (which is nearly a career low) has begun to trend back toward its expected levels, and Dallas' offense has started to rally around him in the way the Mavs teams of the last decade-plus so often have.
But the fundamental difference, of course, is in the quality and skill sets of those complementary players. Dallas' big men and point guards have easily been the most problematic. After going out of his way to avoid leaning on erratic point guard Darren Collison as much as possible, coach Rick Carlisle seems to have found an improbable starting alternative in the 37-year-old Mike James. Even without scoring or passing all that well, James has created a tangible advantage over Collison in the rotation based on his projected threat as a shooter and his basic playmaking skill. James is hitting only 36.3 percent from the field, but his willingness to pull up off the dribble makes him a more fitting counterpoint for Nowitzki in the pick-and-roll. He's also a more accurate long-range option than Collison, which is even more important to Dallas' offense than it might be otherwise.
It's strange that the quicker and more dynamic Collison makes for the less useful Maverick, but such has been the case since James' perimeter shooting has picked up to acceptable levels. The offense is a solid 2.7 points better per 100 possessions whenever James is in control, despite the fact that the overmatched veteran is often working against first-rate competition. He's not a very good player, but he's at least a helpful one.
Plus, with James often flanked by complementary ball-handlers in Vince Carter and O.J. Mayo (not to mention a more capable Nowitzki), the need for him to be a spectacular individual talent is diminished. Carter has worn many hats for Dallas this season, but none more important than his role as an off-the-dribble creator -- one of the precious few that Carlisle can count on without the inevitability of a bungled possession. Mayo, to his credit, has settled in nicely as the season has progressed. He's not as explosive a scorer as he had been earlier in the year, but Mayo has also cut down substantially on his turnovers (only 1.5 per game over the last 15 games) to help streamline Dallas' offense, which is essential for a team that needs shooting volume in order to maximize the return on its jumpers.
The Mavs have long been a jump-shooting team, and this year's roster -- despite being different and new in most every capacity -- is quite typical in that respect. During this 10-5 stretch, for example, Dallas has drawn a whopping 47.5 percent of its offense from two- and three-point jumpers. The Mavs may not jack up as many long-range attempts as the Rockets or Knicks, but they execute with the intent of getting the ball to the corners and the spacing necessary to find open shooters. Even at Dallas' bleakest moments this season, that level of offensive structure was a given. Carlisle-coached teams are simply taught to understand the value of those shots, and few lineups are fielded that would in any way cripple the ability to consistently access three-point-shooting options.
Of course, the inevitable cold-shooting night will occasionally make things quite difficult for the Mavs. But of all the elements that figure to decide their fate over the next few weeks, none is perhaps more important than Brandan Wright -- the slight-framed X-factor whom Carlisle has been so reluctant to play. Wright, 25, is an energy big man with a clever game, and as a result the Mavs tend to be a much better offensive team with him on the court. But it's natural that Carlisle wouldn't want more imposing interior players to exploit Wright, and the front-line tandem of Nowitzki and Wright is also vulnerable on the glass.
Carlisle, however, has little choice right now -- a point he essentially has conceded by playing Wright more minutes this month and inserting him into the starting lineup four games ago. Wright isn't the answer to all of the Mavs' problems, and in a way only serves to exacerbate some of the team's defensive limitations. Dallas has struggled all year to manage certain defensive deficits -- the decision-making of Collison, the immobility of James, the inattention of Mayo -- and no big man on the roster seems fully capable of patching up those holes. Elton Brand, 34, has played relatively controlled minutes, in part because -- as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted -- the Mavs have to avoid wearing him out. As a result, Carlisle has cycled through stints of Chris Kaman (whose flighty defensive tendencies are well-chronicled) and rookie big man Bernard James, neither of which resulted in defensive improvements.
Brand will still play important minutes and draw certain assignments, but the minutes filled by Wright provide Dallas with a chance to be particularly effective on offense (as has historically been the case with an athletic, active big man next to Nowitzki) while especially susceptible on defense. Wright can make up for a lot of his mistakes with length and bounce alone, but he's still a relatively unschooled interior defender prone to bite on pump fakes and be juked into a wrong step or bad rotation.
Dallas has plenty of reason to remain intrigued with Wright's potential, but for the moment he's hardly an ideal defensive backbone for a team that's already so limited in that regard. Marion and Carter hold steady on the wings and Nowitzki has proved to be a functional team defender, but this is a roster with too many burdens for the rail-thin Wright to bear. He'll score in bunches, snare offensive rebounds and challenge shots. But, in its current form, Dallas is basically resigned to try to overwhelm teams with offense and curtail opponents' strengths via top-notch preparation and scouting.
That one-dimensionality should make Dallas a long shot to take the West's final playoff spot. But the competition is also flawed enough that the Mavs may well edge their way into the postseason. The Lakers have dropped four of five, Metta World Peace will miss the rest of the regular season and Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are banged up. The Jazz have won back-to-back games (at home against lottery-bound teams), but zoom out and this is still a team that has dropped 12 of 17 and now must deal with the absence of center Enes Kanter, who is out indefinitely after dislocating his shoulder on Wednesday. And like Dallas, the Lakers and Jazz both have five games remaining against projected playoff teams.
The Mavs have a chance, and it's going to be an excruciating few weeks for Carlisle and his staff, Nowitzki and his teammates. But for those of us on the outside, this is high drama: a tale of three teams with tragic flaws, all spiraling toward and around one another as the walls close in on the regular season. Please take your seats -- the show is about to begin. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.