Can The Mavericks “Overachieve” Their Way To a Matchup With the Clippers?
Coming into the season, Vegas put the Mavericks’ over/under total wins hovering somewhere around 38 wins depending on when and where you were checking. Barring a catastrophic injury, the Mavs will surpass that number. Besides losing some pessimistic gamblers their money, passing this number will serve some other significance. The sharks in Vegas assumed the Mavericks’ season would be irrelevant and finish with them in the lottery. They are on their way to proving that assumption wrong. All of this is really just a long-winded way of saying that the Dallas Mavericks are going to make the playoffs this year.
That’s something to celebrate, in one sense. It’s another benchmark of franchise success. It’s postseason basketball for Dirk Nowitzki. It’s a bunch of veterans coming together to prove most of the league wrong.
And it's among the reasons coach Rick Carlisle is able to say, "I like the team. In fact, I love the team.''
But in another sense, it could be a different form of irrelevancy if things crumble amidst the increased competition of the playoffs. This isn’t a wait-and-see scenario of how Dallas fares in the first round. The Mavericks, to an extent, are in a position to determine who they play in the first round, and they have the health and relatively easy schedule to make a push.
First and foremost, what’s the point? What are the Mavericks trying to accomplish in the second half of the season? It’s not so much about team accomplishment as it is about who they are trying to avoid. Dallas doesn’t want to play the Warriors, Spurs, or Thunder in the first round for the same reason every other team doesn’t want to play them: It is extremely unlikely they beat any of those three teams in a series. The Warriors and Spurs are having historically good seasons, and the Thunder are leaps and bounds ahead of Dallas in terms of athleticism and individual talent.
Dallas, we think, will have a chance to win a series against any other team in the West, which is exciting and noteworthy in its own regard. In a larger sense, smart teams take nothing for granted. You can’t avoid playing top-tier teams forever, but you want to delay it as long as possible because injuries, upsets, or any number of unknown factors can alter the hierarchy of the playoffs the deeper you get into them. You don’t root for or expect these factors, but you put yourself in a position to be one of the teams that might be able to capitalize on them.
Ok, so who can the Mavs realistically hope to play in the first round? Well, the answer is probably the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers are currently in the fourth spot in the West and in all likelihood, aren’t slipping past the fifth spot.
They would be no easy out in the first round, and they would surely be favored to beat the Mavericks. But Blake Griffin will be coming off of a broken hand. In his absence, the Clippers have fallen into the familiar conundrum of playing better without him, not because he is overrated, but because DeAndre Jordan seems to thrive without him on the court. Griffin will likely return just before the playoffs, meaning the Clippers have to figure out how to delicately reintroduce him into a lineup that will have gotten used to their roles without him. The playoffs are not the time to for a team to be trying to recapture its identity, especially against a team of veterans that have all bought into their roles. And all of this is assuming that Griffin will be 100 percent healthy upon his return, which is no guarantee.
Dallas also has a huge bench advantage. Rick Carlisle is comfortable playing any of Devin Harris, Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea, or Dwight Powell in crucial stretches, and solid contributions from JaVale McGee or Charlie Villanueva could also be a factor. Doc Rivers has spent the last two seasons trying to figure out which members of his bench are least likely to cost him a game.
In terms of entertainment value, this also seems like the most karmically fitting series that Mavericks’ fans could hope for after the summer of DeAndre. The Mavericks’ were left for dead after Jordan’s snub, and to see players like Chandler Parsons, Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, and Zaza Pachulia help Dirk put together another wining season has endeared this season’s team to many in Dallas. It’s the Clippers who are toeing the line of turmoil with a closing window of title contention. There’s no doubt that Jordan, Griffin, and Chris Paul are huge problems for the Mavs, but even going up a game at any point in the series over a team that is quick to invite second-guessing might be something of a victory for this year’s Mavericks team.
It’s the most enticing playoff matchup out there, and it’s up to the Mavericks to make it happen.
Of Dallas’ 27 remaining games, only 10 of them are against teams currently with a winning record. If we assume that they win half (5) of their games against teams with winning record and 10 of their other 17 games then that would put them at 44 wins on the season. The team they need to pass is Memphis who is currently three games ahead of them, but also just recently lost their best player, Marc Gasol, to a likely season-ending injury. Factoring in the injury and their schedule, the Grizzlies are likely to finish between 43-45 wins. The Mavs also have to worry about the Jazz, who are just two games behind them in the standings and are currently playing their best basketball of the season.
In other words, it’s going to be close. (See more on The Chase in this weekly feature on the Mavs vs. the West field.)
If Dallas wins all of the games it is “supposed to win” then the Mavs will be in good shape. But they can’t afford any small skids in the schedule. They come out of the All-Star break with a light schedule, but beginning March 7th they have this nine-game stretch:
Those are all tough teams to play. The reality might be that the Mavericks can’t afford to lose three straight at any point all season or else be subjected to a first-round series against the Warriors, Spurs, or Thunder.
Dallas is as healthy as its been all season assuming that Devin Harris comes out of the break with healed toe. The break has also be much-needed for Matthews, Nowitzki and Parsons, as the Mavs re-assemble this afternoon for their first practice in over a week. There might be some slight alterations to the roster (see all the possibilities and non-possibilities listed here), but by and large, these are your Boys In Blue.
These final 27 games for Dallas weren’t supposed to mean something. They most definitely do.