Nothing ever comes easy for the 2013-14 Dallas Mavericks.
The NBA's Cardiac Kids headed to Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Thursday night on the heels of the longest (and perhaps cruelest) homestand in franchise history. The Mavs went 4-4 over their last eight games—a stretch which featured four losses by a combined 12 points, three overtime defeats and one enormous blown call from the referees.
But the Mavericks had no time for self-pity; they were still tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns for the final two playoff positions in the brutally competitive Western Conference. They absolutely needed to get a win against the Clippers.
And they got the win...but it didn't come easy. With Dallas, nothing ever is. The Mavericks survived both a tough L.A. team and their own late-game jitters to pull out a 113-107 win. It wasn't pretty toward the end, but they don't give out style points in the NBA.
Despite all that has happened over the past few weeks, Dallas is now 0.5 games up on both Phoenix and Memphis. The Mavericks have put themselves in good position to make the playoffs thanks to their effort on Thursday.
The Whims of Fortune
The past 72 hours have been an absolute roller coaster for the Mavericks.
The refs ruled a blocked shot on a potential go-ahead field-goal attempt by Mavericks guard Monta Ellis with 16 seconds left in overtime, but NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn ruled that goaltending should have been called on Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal. That would have given Dallas a two-point lead.
With the loss, Dallas dropped into the dreaded ninth spot in the Western Conference.
But the basketball gods smiled on the Mavericks that very same evening, in the form of losses to both of their key rivals. Phoenix fell to the Clippers, and Memphis dropped its contest with the Timberwolves.
The Mavericks were virtually right back where they started on Tuesday afternoon—in a three-way tie with the Suns and Grizzlies for the final two playoff spots—heading into Thursday's clash with the Clippers.
In many ways their four-game series with L.A. was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for the Mavericks of late. They came into Thursday 0-3 against the Clippers, despite holding leads of seven points in their first meeting, 17 points in the rematch and 11 points in their most recent meeting—a two-point loss during that ill-fated late-March homestand.
Dallas needed to put that recent heartache behind it, buckle down and defeat an elite Clippers squad that had won 17 of its last 19 games.
And the Mavericks did buckle down...for 45 minutes. They had the game in hand thanks to a strong run throughout the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter.
But the Mavericks can never do anything the easy way. Their fans watched in abject terror as the Clippers went on a 10-0 run after the Mavs had taken a seemingly insurmountable 109-97 with 2:51 left.
Los Angeles actually had a chance to take the lead after Dirk Nowitzki missed a jumper with one minute left. It was then that fortune once again smiled on Dallas.
That fateful final minute started out as a horror show for Dallas. Down two points, the Clippers found shooting guard J.J. Redick alone in the corner. Redick has long been one of the deadliest three-point shooters in the league, and it is never good policy to leave him unguarded.
But Redick was rusty, having played in his first game since injuring his back on Feb. 3. He needed to take a step back to get himself behind the three-point line, which threw off his shooting rhythm. He fired up the shot, and he missed.
The Mavericks wasted their next possession, which resulted in a bricked mid-range jumper from big man Brandan Wright...not exactly the guy you want shooting jump shots in the last minute of one-possession games. The Clippers got an open three-point look from Darren Collison, who also missed.
Nowitzki took personal control of the game, snatching the rebound and dribbling the ball down the court all by his lonesome. But as great as the German big man has been over his Hall of Fame career, he is no point guard. He found himself quickly trapped at the half-court line by a double-team, only to catch a break when Griffin inexplicably fouled him. Nowitzki made both free throws to ice the victory.
Josh Bowe of the SB Nation blog Mavs Moneyball accurately summarized the emotions of Dallas fans during that troubling denouement:
The Mavs might win this game by literally doing nothing down the stretch.— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) April 4, 2014
This is the least emphatic clutch win in the history of sports.— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) April 4, 2014
The Mavs win, but I still want to line them all up in a row and slap all of them Three Stooges-style.— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) April 4, 2014
Six Games to Go
As cliche as it sounds, the Dallas Mavericks are what they are at this point: an elite offensive team that can't get stops on defense. According to Basketball-Reference, they came into the game ranked fourth in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency, with neither ranking likely to change much by the end of the year.
Yet Dallas masterfully baited the Clippers into playing its game on Thursday—a wild, high-octane-scoring affair.
During his on-air interview between the third and fourth quarters, Clippers coach Doc Rivers lamented that neither team had played much defense. That might not be good news for Rivers, but it was music to Dallas' ears. The Mavs know how to win that kind of game, and they did.
But Dallas must always guard against the kind of lapses that plagued it over the last three minutes—not so much on defense, but on offense. Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert got careless with the ball, resulting in turnovers and easy buckets on the other end.
When you don't defend well, even a brief lapse in offensive discipline can result the kind of lightning-quick 10-point swing that nearly doomed Dallas on Thursday night.
At this time of year, the Mavericks can afford no slip-ups. Point guard Jose Calderon took to Twitter to celebrate Thursday's victory, but also to sound what should be Dallas' marching call:
Six to go. The Mavericks will turn right around and play the Lakers on Friday night. If they take care of business against the Lakers—and they should—they will have two more winnable games against the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
And then they will run the gauntlet. Dallas finishes the season with a home game against the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs and then a pair of matchups made in NBA heaven: versus Phoenix and at Memphis.
That's right: The Mavericks will end the season against the very teams standing between them and the postseason. This is do-or-die time in Dallas. That is why Thursday's win over the Clippers was so critical, despite the lackluster ending. At this point in the season there is no room for error.
Six to go.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.