Somehow, someway the Dallas Mavericks are still in contention for a Western Conference playoff spot this season.
Despite injuries, inconsistent play and having to deal with almost an entirely new roster, Rick Carlisle has held this team together just enough to be in the hunt with six regular-season games remaining.
Although it is certainly a long shot and may very well end up coming short, this team still deserves credit for not quitting and fighting tooth and nail to get back into the mix.
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, they lost two crucial games this week against the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets that may have sealed their fate. However, before that game, the Mavericks had won five of seven and gone 4-2 on their six-game homestand to put themselves back into contention.
It was due to a combination of several different factors that Dallas was able to put it together and surge back up the standings late in the season.
For starters, Dallas has been scoring the ball incredibly well from the field. During their last 10 games, the Mavericks have averaged 101.9 PPG, and that includes two games against Indiana and the Lakers, in which they hovered around 80.
Although it certainly has had its struggles in certain games, for the most part this Dallas offensive unit has shined over the last month.
Dirk Nowitzki has once again been playing at an All-Star form, going over 20 points nine times since the beginning of March.
Dallas also has continued to get great productivity out of its bench. The Mavericks have the best bench in the league in terms of points per game at 41.6. At different times, Vince Carter, Darren Collison and Brandan Wright are highly efficient offensive threats who aren't in the Mavericks' starting five.
Having a bench capable of putting up points in a big way has allowed the Mavericks to rely more on their second unit to score points and keep them in ballgames, especially early.
A key reason that Dallas has been able to creep up the standings in recent months is that it has been able to consistently beat teams that it should beat. Since February 1, the Mavericks are 10-1 against teams that currently have an under-.500 record.
As you can see, Dallas has done a nice job all season of keeping its losses down against weaker opponents. The issue has been that it has struggled much more against teams in the playoff race.
At 37-39, the reason the Mavericks haven't been able to get over the hump and beyond the .500 mark (as well as shaving those awful beards) is that they just haven't been consistent enough against top competition.
Nevertheless, even that has been beginning to change in the Mavericks recent push toward the playoffs. Dallas has had wins over the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls over the last three weeks.
Shawn Marion has also been a key to the Mavericks' recent turnaround. There was much speculation that Dallas would trade Marion before the February trade deadline, but after he returned to the Mavs' lineup, Marion his given all he can to right the ship.
After coming back from a strained left calf injury on March 22, Marion has helped lead his team to key wins. Although his numbers don't always show up in the stat sheet, Marion's presence on the defensive end, as well as his ability on the glass despite being only 6'7'' makes a huge difference to the Mavs' front line.
A final way that the Mavericks have been able to turn their season around is in their new-found ability to win close games. Dallas is 5-2 since March 1 in games decided by five points or less or went to overtime.
Although their recent one-point loss to Denver may have ended their playoff hopes, Mavericks fans can at least be proud of the way that the Mavs have done a complete 180 on how they perform in close games. Dallas was just 5-12 in five-point/overtime games between October and February.
It may be difficult for Mavericks fans to see the positives in a team that will more likely than not break the franchise's streak of 12 consecutive playoff appearances.
It also doesn't help that many of these Mavericks players may not be returning next season, as only five Dallas players have guaranteed contracts next season, and the front office will want to shake things up on by making some big moves to try to improve this squad.
Still, even though 2012-13 feels like a lost season, the Mavericks have been if nothing else a fun team to watch, especially in the last month and a half. And with the playoffs still in sight,and knowing the character of Rick Carlisle-coached teams, it would be surprising to see this team give up until it has played all 82 games on its schedule.