NBA fans were treated to an incredible game tonight, an epic clash between a veteran team with championship experience and a plucky young upstart squad with a superior regular-season record. This was a back-and-forth duel worthy of a conference finals series, featuring big-time shots, oodles of technical fouls and a former MVP.
In the end, it was the younger, more athletic team that made just enough buckets down the stretch to come away with a hard-fought win.
Oh, I'm sorry...did you think this was yet another article about Wednesday night's hyped matchup between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat? Though it came 24 hours later and lacked the national television audience and the ubiquitous "BeastsOfTheEast" Twitter hashtag, Thursday's clash between the No. 3 seed Clippers and No. 9 Mavericks featured star power and quality basketball to spare.
The Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki—one of only four active players to win both a regular-season and Finals MVP award—who scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds. They had 10-time All-Star Vince Carter, who came off the bench to score a team-high 23 points.
The Mavericks held a 96-90 lead at the 6:22 mark of the fourth quarter after point guard Jose Calderon drilled a three-pointer. But Dallas would hit only two more field goals the rest of the way, as Los Angeles closed out the game on a 19-7 run.
In the end, Dallas could not overcome Clippers All-Stars Chris Paul (game-high 31 points) and Blake Griffin (18 points, 13 rebounds). In his postgame comments, Paul likened the intensity of Thursday's game to what the Clippers should expect come playoff time, per The Associated Press (via ESPN): "We knew it was going to be a playoff-type game. They're not just playing for their playoff lives; we're trying to gear up for the playoffs, too."
Sadly, the playoffs are no guarantee in Dallas. If the regular season were to end on Friday, Nowitzki and the Mavericks would be going home.
Beasts of the East...Rest of the West
Think about that for a moment. Even with the loss, this Dallas team is 43-30. The Mavericks have never had a losing month this season. They feature one of the best players in NBA history, currently enjoying a bounce-back season after a disappointing (for him) 2012-13 campaign.
What does it say about the Dallas Mavericks that they stand a very real chance of missing out on the postseason? Not much. True, they are not a good defensive team—coming into Thursday, Dallas ranked a paltry 23rd in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. But the Mavs make up for that weakness with an offense ranked fourth in the NBA.
In truth, Dallas' biggest sin this season has been the fact that it is based in a city that lies west of the Mississippi River. If the Mavericks miss the playoffs, they will become the poster children for the historic disparity between the league's Eastern and Western Conferences.
Where would the Mavericks fall in the Eastern Conference playoff race? At 43-30, they would be two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls for the No. 3 seed. That's right—home-court advantage in one conference, out of the playoffs in the other.
Likewise, it doesn't say much that the Clippers struggled to beat such a low seed. Los Angeles lost its previous game, 98-96, to the New Orleans Pelicans—the West's 12th seed.
But even the lowly Pels have a bona fide superstar in power forward Anthony Davis, who has been perhaps the best player in the league this month. Davis is averaging a mind-boggling 30.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game over his last 10 contests. Imagine running into that on a night when you should—on paper, anyway—be playing a conference bottom-feeder.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
What can be done about this embarrassing lack of balance between the two conferences? Should the NBA shuffle playoff teams around or scrap the conference system entirely for a playoff tournament featuring the league's 16 best teams?
It's an interesting idea, but there's absolutely no chance the league will ever consider it.
The NBA, like all American sports leagues, is wedded to the two-conference format...or two leagues, as is the case with Major League Baseball.
The NBA prefers to divide the conferences into the East and West, ostensibly to save on travel. Teams play nearby conference rivals three or four times a season, while limiting far-flung interconference franchises only play each other twice.
However, there could be another reason that geographical conference format is so crucial to the league. ESPN's Ethan Strauss believes that country's unequal population makeup—with far more people concentrated in the Northeast—could play a role:
The NBA would prefer your average East team makes the playoffs over your average West team. Guessing that's why there's no 16 seed tourney— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 27, 2014
The Northeast is our big population/media center. League might not get any NE teams in with a 16 seed tourney. That's a concern— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 27, 2014
It is also important to remember that this imbalance tends to ebb and flow between East and West. In the 1996-97 season, for example, three Western Conference teams made the postseason with a losing record.
The Dallas Mavericks simply have the misfortune of playing in the wrong conference in the wrong year. But that doesn't mean they have to go quietly into the lottery. They sit only 0.5 games behind the eighth-place Phoenix Suns and one game behind the seventh-place Memphis Grizzlies with nine games left to play. They are by no means finished.
Regardless of what happens in the Western Conference over the next few weeks, there will be eight talented teams battling in four thrilling first-round series...and one deserving club left out in the cold. Such is life in the NBA. Nobody ever said this league was fair.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.