Keys to Watch as Mavericks Make Playoff Push in Season's 2nd Half

Andrew H. SmithContributor IIIJanuary 22, 2013

Keys to Watch as Mavericks Make Playoff Push in Season's 2nd Half

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    The Dallas Mavericks are only two seasons removed from winning their first NBA Championship, but the 2012-2013 campaign has been a year unlike any other in the Mark Cuban-Dirk Nowitzki era.  

    The Mavericks have a dismal 18-24 record by their standards, but the good news is that they only trail the Houston Rockets by 3.5 games for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. 

    Dallas has reached the playoffs for 12 straight seasons, and has exceeded the 50-win mark in every season during their run except for the shortened 66-game season last year.

    19 of the remaining 30 games for the Mavericks after the All-Star Break are against current playoff teams, so with a tough schedule ahead, let's break down areas that Dallas needs to excel in to make a 13th consecutive trip to the postseason.

Health of Dirk Nowitzki

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    Dirk Nowitzki has been the cornerstone of the Mavericks franchise and one of the game's top power forwards for the past decade. 

    Nowitzki missed the first 27 games of this season due to knee surgery, and Dallas limped out to a 12-15 start.  Since his return, the Mavericks record is only 6-9, but they have won five of their last six games.

    In that time, Nowitzki's minutes and role in the offense have both increased.  He has logged at least 28 minutes in each of the past 10 games.  His 13.9PPG and 5.6RPG are still well off of his career averages, but his return infuses the Dallas roster with size up front and championship experience.

    Nowitzki's return also adds depth to the Mavericks bench, allowing veterans Elton Brand and Vince Carter to round out a strong seven-man rotation.  As long as Nowitzki continues to progress, Dallas should improve in many statistical areas. 

Improve Defensive Scoring

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    If there is a single glaring weakness on the Mavericks roster, it is their lack of defense.

    In 42 games so far this season, the Mavericks have held opponents to under 90 points in a game only twice.

    Although Dallas has the 10th ranked scoring offense in the NBA at 100.2 PPG, the problem is that they are ranked 28th in scoring defense, allowing opponents to score 102.9 PPG.

    Dallas is ranked 18th in rebounds, 23rd in opponent FG%, and 24th in allowing extra scoring chances per game, which indicates they are giving up too many easy baskets.

    If the Mavericks can improve in these three areas, their playoff hopes will improve significantly.

4th Quarter and Overtime Execution

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    The Mavericks are a below average 11-14 in games decided so far this season by 10 points or fewer.  To make matters worse, their record in overtime is brutal at 1-8.  These are not the trademarks of past Dallas teams or of any playoff or championship team. 

    The return of Nowitzki should help Dallas improve in these categories, as he provides a legitimate go-to option for Dallas down the stretch of close games. Today's NBA is a "shot-making" league, and Nowitzki has hit plenty of game-winners over his 14-year career. 

Improve Aggressiveness and Take Advantage of the "Charity Stripe"

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    On offense, one way Dallas can find additional success is by getting to the free-throw line.  The Mavs rank 3rd in the NBA in FT shooting at almost 80%. 

    The problem here is that the Mavericks only rank 20th in the NBA in scoring points in the paint at 39.9PPG.

    Some jump-shooting teams such as the New York Knicks have proven to be very successful so far this season, but relying heavily on perimeter offense is a dangerous way to make a living in the NBA.

    Of the current 16 playoff teams right now, 10 of them rank in the top half of the NBA in points in the paint. Expect Dallas to improve this area in the 2nd half of the season.

O.J. Mayo

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    As O.J. Mayo goes, the Dallas Mavericks will go.

    Dallas has six players who average at least 10 points a game which indicates solid offensive balance, but they need O.J. Mayo to be a preeminent scoring threat in the 2nd half of the season in order to take pressure off of Dirk Nowitzki and leap-frog a handful of other teams in the Western Conference for a playoff spot. 

    For his NBA career, Mayo averages 15.6PPG, so from a scoring standpoint he is easily having his best season. Mayo is in his fourth year and leads the Mavericks in scoring at 18.2PPG.  The big x-factor in Dallas' success is how Mayo performs in wins and losses.

    In wins, Mayo averages 22.5PPG.  He is capable of having a monster game on any given night, such as when he scored 40 points against Houston Rockets in a 116-109 win on Dec. 8.

    However, Mayo only averages 14.9PPG in losses. Earlier this season, Dallas endured a six-game losing streak to end the month of December.  Over that stretch, Mayo averaged a dismal 8.7PPG.  The Mavericks only scored over 100 points once, and lost five of six games by double digits. 

Avoid Foul Trouble

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    Defensively, the Mavericks rank 24th in the NBA, allowing 21.2 fouls per game.  They also rank second to last in the NBA in free throws allowed, at 26.2 per game. 

    Foul trouble leads to easy points for opponents, unfavorable matchups, diminished playing time for the Mavericks starters, and fewer offensive possessions and opportunities to score.  

    Dallas will want to avoid frequent foul trouble in the 2nd half of the season so they can play a fast-pace style and utilize their offensive strengths.

Take Care of Business on the Road

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    Winning on the road is no easy task in the NBA.  Only nine teams in the NBA have a winning record on the road and they all hold current playoff seeds. 

    The Mavericks road record is 7-16, so they need to quickly toughen up away from American Airlines Center. 

    Dallas has two huge four-game road trips towards the end of their schedule which will make or break their playoff chances.

    The first four-game stretch occurs in mid-March when the Mavericks visit the Detroit Pistons, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the rival San Antonio Spurs.  The second four-game trip will be challenging as the Mavs pay visits to the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Portland Trail Blazers. All four of these teams are currently vying for playoff contention.

    If Dallas can weather these two road trips and play well at home, their chances of making the playoffs for the 13th year in a row will skyrocket.

Prediction

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    Dallas has enough talent on their roster and enough time left in the NBA regular season to make a push for the postseason.  The 1-6 seeds in the Western Conference are set in stone right now, so I predict it will be a dead sprint to the finish between the Mavericks, Lakers, and Houston Rockets to grab the seven and eight seeds.  Dallas will get into the playoffs behind the coaching experience of Rick Carlisle and on the shoulders of Nowitzki and Mayo.