Suns At Mavs: Biggest Game Since ...?

Friday night's NBA machinations create the setup. The Spurs beat the Suns. The Mavs jump to seventh. Dallas is now in complete control of its destiny in terms of holding that favorable position - and it can clinch the playoffs with a win at the AAC tonight against the visiting Suns. Our preview ... And just how big this is:

How important is the final home game of the season tonight for the Dallas Mavericks?

Says no less an authority than Mavs radio voice (and columnist) Chuck Cooperstein: "I'm trying to think if the Mavs have ever played a bigger regular-season than this."

Well, a win would put the Mavericks back in the playoffs. It would also keep them firmly in the driver's seat for the seventh seed in the West. Why is the seventh seed significant? It would allow Dallas to avoid the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, the same Spurs that have won nine straight games against the Mavericks.

The Suns will bring serious competition with them to the AAC on Saturday. They are one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now, having won eight of their last 11 games. Phoenix is an interesting team in that their offseason roster construction led many to believe that the franchise was tanking. Whether or not the playoffs were a legitimate goal for the Suns' front office they certainly were for first-year head coach (and NBA Coach of the Year candidate) Jeff Hornacek.

They surprised a lot of teams early in the season and through January they were still in the playoff picture. Just about everyone assumed the Cinderella story had ended when guard Eric Bledsoe injured his knee and had to miss nearly two months. Yet somehow the Suns weathered the storm in Bledsoe's absence and the athletic guard is back. Instead of regressing into the team many had pegged them as prior to the season, they are playing their best basketball of the season at the most important time of year.
They are led by Bledsoe and Goran Dragic who was probably this season's biggest All-Star snub. The two-guard attack is extremely hard to defend because both Bledsoe and Dragic, despite their smaller size, attack the basket relentlessly. They are typically surrounded by spot-up shooters. ... And one key tonight is whether Dragic (ankle) will play. He sat out the loss to the Spurs.

One of those spot-up shooters is a guy that the Mavericks took a chance on back in 2008. Gerald Green averaged 5.2 points per game in his one season with Dallas. But the potential that the Mavericks' front office saw in him has finally developed into reality. Green is averaging almost 16 points per game and has surprisingly become an excellent three-point shooter. Green still has the athleticism that won him the Dunk Contest, but his key role with the Suns is to catch-and-shoot.

The Suns have found energy guys that actually maintain roles in the rotation. This is an underrated accomplishment. Every team has a "hustle" player in some form or another, but they don't always spend a lot of time on the floor. Dejuan Blair brings great effort off of the Mavericks' bench, but his role is in constant flux and he does not even see minutes every single game. Players like Plumlee and PJ Tucker were not regarded as especially valuable players in the league, but they are large part of the Suns' identity. Another part of their identity are the Morris twins. It seemed like a funny novelty when the Suns acquired both Markeiff and Marcus Morris, but now having two large, versatile power forwards with similar skill sets actually seems quite logical. Funny how winning can change perspectives.

The Suns are top-10 in the league in scoring and three-point shooting. They attack you off the dribble, but they are actually 29th in the league in assists. They have excellent one-on-one scorers and will find and exploit any defensive matchup they can.

"They have a lot of toughness on their team," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "They've got young guys that have been on some bad teams, and they're tired of getting kicked around and so they play with attitude."
With that being said they certainly don't have one thing in particular: anyone who can guard Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is taller and more skilled than whoever will be guarding him. It should not be difficult for him to get his shots off whenever he wants. It is just a matter of the Mavericks making sure that he gets the right number of touches.

Expect a strong game from Carter as well. The Suns' bench is a bit of a weak spot, meaning the Mavericks' bench will have to be a strength. Carter did not even attempt a three in the Mavericks' loss to the Spurs in which San Antonio hit a barrage of threes throughout the game. In a game that will at times be played at a very fast pace, expect Carter to get a high number of shots up. And know that in coach Rick Carlisle's view, Dallas must always have either Dirk or Vince on the floor for this offense to run properly.

As has really been the story for about a month now, there are three teams fighting for two playoff spots. A win Saturday means the Mavericks won't be the odd team out.

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