Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press
The Phoenix Suns are just a half-game back from tying the Mavericks for the eighth seed, and every game going forward will be critical to taking over completely.
Both teams are 6-4 over the last 10 games, with the Suns on a three-game win streak and Dallas dropping one to the Nets in overtime on Mar. 23. The Mavs then face six Western Conference playoff teams, as well as Phoenix on April 12.
The Suns will play against eight teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, six being West teams. They've played more games against conference opponents, going 24-19 against Dallas' 22-19 mark. Phoenix has just four games at home for the rest of the season, while the Mavs will play six in front of their fans.
The Suns have gone 5-2 since the return of Eric Bledsoe, but most of their opponents have been sub-par teams. That's a major boost for Phoenix, in addition to Gerald Green's 19.1 points per game during March. The team is clicking, and it's coming at a key time during the season.
Phoenix will remain competitive down the stretch and will have a chance going forward, but much of the team's fortune is tied to what happens to Dallas. The Suns can win all they want, but it'll be for nothing if the Mavericks don't lose a few.
Dirk Nowitzki's poor 41 percent shooting over the last five games could lead to losses for Dallas if it continues, although it's been uncharacteristic for one of the best scorers in NBA history.
In addition, the facial injury to Jose Calderon against the Nets remains noteworthy. It isn't reported to be serious, but if he does miss time, the Mavs will lose a bit of firepower that Phoenix can take advantage of, should it lead to less wins.
The game when both teams face each other on Apr. 12 will be critical for either side, as it will give advantage in the case of a tiebreaker for the last spot.
There remains the possibility Memphis could drop out, but their strong play as of late (7-3 in the last 10 games) doesn't make it likely. In a case of a tie, the Grizzlies would win as Phoenix has dropped all three games to them this season.
Much like New York in the Eastern Conference, the Suns will need a lot of luck to slip past Dallas. There's a lot of factors to consider, many that play for and against Phoenix.
The shear half-game differential between the Suns and the Mavericks makes the former team the top dark-horse candidate for the 2014 playoffs, as even the slightest fault by Dallas will result in Phoenix stealing away a postseason berth.
Every game will be crucial for both teams, but the Suns are right there behind the Mavericks. If that isn't a dark-horse playoff team, I don't know what is.