If the Dallas Mavericks were in the Eastern Conference, this would be a vastly different situation. They would be currently trying to hold on to the third seed. They would be just a few wins away from clinching a playoff berth. They would very likely have home-court advantage in the first round. They would go into the playoffs having the confidence of knowing that they swept one of the conference's two elite teams (Indiana Pacers) in the regular season.
They coulda been a contend-ah!
But alas, the Dallas Mavericks are not in the Eastern Conference. Instead they find themselves in one of the tightest playoff races in recent memory. Entering the playoffs as anything higher than a sixth seed is unlikely. And at least up to this point of the season, the Western Conference's top two teams (Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs) have had their way with the Mavericks in regular-season matchups.
With 18 games left to play there are essentially four teams fighting for the final three playoff spots. Entering Monday night, the sixth through ninth spots in the West standings are held by Golden State, Phoenix, Dallas and Memphis, respectively and they are separated by only three games. The Mavericks are currently holding on to the seventh spot in the playoff picture, but despite consecutive wins over two of the best teams in the NBA (our Portland game coverage is here and our Indiana game coverage is here) they are only one game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns.
One year after making the Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies spent the first half of the season under .500 while Marc Gasol missed significant time due to injury, but Gasol is back and healthy and Memphis is back to playing the physical style they are accustomed to. If it ends up coming down to Memphis or Dallas for the final spot (certainly not a guarantee) then which will make it?
Here's a look at some factors in the remaining schedules as we calculated Sunday night:
|Opp w/ 40+ Win||Opp w/ 40+ Losses|
Those totals change slightly if you include Sunday's results, when Golden State reached 40 wins. Dallas has two and Memphis has one game remaining against the Warriors … if you add Golden State, both the Mavs and Grizzlies play seven opponents with at least 40 wins currently.
Those numbers, while not overwhelming, certainly allow the Mavericks their shot. Dallas has also already won the season series with Memphis, which gives them the edge in the event of a tie. All that being said, Memphis is playing their best basketball of the season right now. They've won seven of their last 10 games and there's little reason to think they'll begin to falter.
An example of the fluidity of these standings can be found John Hollinger's Playoff Odds for ESPN.com. Hollinger conducts a statistical analysis that constantly updates each team's probability of making the playoffs. After Friday night's victory over the Pacers, Hollinger gave the Mavericks a 77.4 percent chance of making the postseason.
Interestingly enough, it is not actually Memphis who Hollinger has as most likely to miss the playoffs. His numbers claim that Phoenix has the best chance of being on the outside looking in. The Suns' schedule has them playing just 10 games versus teams over .500 compared to 11 games versus teams under .500. That being said they only have seven remaining home games and play their other 14 games on the road.
Those probabilities do not factor in the return of Eric Bledsoe to the Suns. The lightning-quick guard is expected to return from injury in the next few games. The backcourt of Bledsoe and point guard Goran Dragic was the key to Phoenix's early-season success. If Bledsoe comes back healthy and the Suns are at full strength then you can expect them to be very tough team down the stretch.
So even if we were to assume that either Memphis or Phoenix will be the odd team out assuring the Mavericks a playoff spot, we also have to recognize the reality that a seven or eight seed all but guarantees a first-round matchup with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. With the obvious caveat that ‘anything can happen in the playoffs,' it should be noted that there has been very little evidence this season to suggest that Dallas would have even a decent chance of beating either of those two teams a seven-game series.
In the one matchup between Dallas and Oklahoma City thus far this season the Thunder handily beat the Mavericks 107-93 in Oklahoma City. The Mavericks shot only 42 percent in the game. The game was all the way back in November, but Kevin Durant, who may very well be the league's MVP this season, has only improved his play since then.
The results in three games against San Antonio are even more concerning. The Spurs managed to score at least 112 points in all three games, all victories. Dallas was clearly outplayed in all three matchups.
Winning a series against either Houston or the Clippers is much more reasonable, if still not necessarily likely. The Mavericks won three out of four against Houston. They lost both games they've played against the Clippers, but managed to score at ease against them. In fact, the Mavericks have had tremendous offensive success against both teams. Of course, they have had practically no success defending either team, but that has something to do with the fact that they are two of the best offensive teams in the NBA.
The Clippers and Rockets both managed to score a lot on the Mavericks, but the scoring was very streaky. Almost every game consisted of exceptionally large back-and-forth runs of scoring and momentum. If nothing else, a first round matchup between Dallas and either Houston or the Clippers would be very entertaining.
But in order to secure that type of matchup the Mavericks would likely have to attain the sixth seed in the West, currently held by Golden State. This is certainly a possibility, but it will be no easy task. The Mavericks are only two games behind the Warriors at the moment, but Golden State has won eight of their last 10 games and has seemed to solve a number of offensive flaws that plagued them earlier in the year.
To make matters worse, of their final 18 games, the Warriors play 11 of them at home. Only eight of those final 18 are against teams above .500. However, the Warriors have two remaining games against the Mavericks, including this Tuesday's game. A win there will leave the Mavericks within one game of Golden State.
The final 18 games of the season are just about impossible to predict. The Mavericks have played excellent basketball over the past two games, but will they even make the playoffs? The schedule and the numbers would say "yes,'' they have a stronger chance of holding on to a spot in the postseason. But will they be able to work their way up to a sixth seed? That's certainly less likely. But just as the Golden State game is an important beginning to the final 18, the last one probably figures to matter even more.
The Mavericks' second-to-the-last game of the season is at home against the Suns. The last game of the season is in Memphis against the Grizzlies. There is your potential to be a ‘winner-makes-the-playoffs' finish.
It will take until then, most likely, to discover if Dallas is a contender ... if Dallas can be somebody.