Dallas Mavericks' Road Map for Sneaking into 2014 NBA Playoffs

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 29: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against the Sacramento Kings on March 29, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
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With a playoff berth on the line, the Dallas Mavericks had everything to play for Thursday night against the cold-blooded San Antonio Spurs.

It wasn't enough.

Head coach Rick Carlisle's team fell to San Antonio 109-100, sliding to the eighth seed in the Western Conference and clinging ever so tightly to its playoff hopes. To their credit, the Mavs put up a noble effort. It took 39 minutes of Tim Duncan and six three-pointers from point guard Patty Mills to get the job done.

San Antonio didn't have Tony Parker around, but Dallas couldn't take advantage, instead giving up 26 points to Mills (Parker's replacement in the starting lineup).

Coming off four straight wins (including a 113-107 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers), this loss came at a bad time for the Mavericks. They need every game they can get at this point, and the Spurs looked vulnerable after losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves 110-91 on Tuesday night. 

The good news for the Mavericks is that they essentially control their fate. If they win their two remaining games against the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, nothing can keep them out of the playoffs. The only problem is that those are the two other teams also looking to secure a spot in the West.

According to Hollinger's 2013-14 NBA Playoff Odds, the Mavs' chances of making the playoffs stand at 84.9 percent. Those are better than both Memphis and Phoenix's odds. That's thanks in large part to the fact that Dallas owns the tiebreaker against the Grizzlies (against whom it's 3-0). Dallas has split its two games with Phoenix at one game apiece, but it has an opportunity to claim that tiebreaker Saturday night.

So we know the Mavericks can control their own fate. The question is how they'll go about doing it. There's a lot riding on these next two games.


Blocking Out the Suns

Phoenix is a young team that seemingly has nothing to lose. With the pressure facing Dallas, that's a dangerous dynamic. The Mavs know Dirk Nowitzki has precious few remaining opportunities to win a second title, so there's a lot hinging on their potential postseason run.

There's that much more hinging on the games making that run possible in the first place.

Could the carefree Suns back Dallas into a must-win final game?

It's very possible. Goran Dragic has proven a dangerous point guard capable of pushing the tempo and scoring from virtually anywhere. The Mavericks don't have much of a perimeter stopper, so Dragic could prove problematic. He's averaged 20.5 points in his two meetings against the Mavs thus far.

So the first order of business for Dallas will be swarming Dragic as much as possible in pick-and-roll situations, pushing him to the perimeter and preventing him from pulling up for his preferred mid-range jumpers. That's a lot to ask of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, so expect to see lots of help from bigger defenders like Vince Carter and Shawn Marion.

It's going to take a team.

The X-factors, though, may be Gerald Green and Vince Carter. Green has averaged 17 points against Dallas this season and proven more generally that he's capable of going off at any given time. He's an explosive athlete and much-improved shooter, a threat to catch the Mavericks a little off guard.

Meanwhile, Carter has averaged 11 points against Phoenix. He'll need to overachieve, giving Dallas the firepower to keep pace with Phoenix's tempo.

It goes without saying Dallas will also need big games from leading scorers Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. The Suns have enough young length to bother Dirk, but they really don't have a defensive answer for Ellis, who's averaged 21.5 points in two games against the Suns. Ellis is too quick for either Green or Dragic to check him in the backcourt, so look for him to take the initiative.

If all else fails, it helps that Dallas is playing this one at home.


Taming the Grizzlies

The next game will come on the road.

The Mavericks know they don't have an answer for the Grizzlies' size. Samuel Dalembert may see a little more action than usual, but the Mavericks will attempt to dictate tempo. They've proven capable of doing that so far against Memphis, winning previous games with point totals of 111, 105 and 110. 

Against a team known for its defense, those are impressive numbers. One of the keys is that Dallas doesn't rely on the kind of one-on-one style of play that defenders like Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Courtney Lee are so adept at stopping. The Mavs move the ball well, shoot from the perimeter and get everyone involved.

In short, they rely on a system. It's hard to defend that.

It's also fair to say that Zach Randolph just can't guard Dirk. Nowitzki has averaged 23.3 points in the teams' three meetings, making an outrageous 58 percent of his shots. Dallas will feed him early and often, exploiting a matchup for which the Grizzlies simply don't have an answer.

There's certainly some danger that Randolph and Gasol will bully the Mavericks in the low post. If Memphis can slow the game down enough, things could turn south for Dallas. Look to see lots of help defense from Marion's long arms and quick hands. The Grizzlies don't have enough perimeter shooters to prevent Dallas from double-teaming in the paint, so guys like Marion will be on the move and helping at every opportunity.

Empirically, Dallas walks into this game with a clear advantage. Anything can happen, but there's every reason to believe the Mavs have this one on lockdown.


Backing Up Into the Playoffs

Assuming Dallas makes it into the playoffs, there's no question it would have preferred to do so a little less stressfully. It won't have an opportunity to rest starters. It won't have a chance to catch its collective breath.

All the same, these next two games are quite the opportunity to build some momentum. 

Whether that momentum winds up running into the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks will have a chance. They've proven capable of beating good teams all season long, and there's nothing about a seven-game series that will change that.

If anything, such a series would give Carlisle—an excellent mastermind—every opportunity to make adjustments and in turn make the most of his deceptively versatile roster.

This may not feel like a dark-horse contender, but we've seen stranger things happen. The Mavericks have experience, a dangerous backcourt scorer and a team concept that can succeed at any tempo. That's the formula for a postseason upset.

There's just that small matter of getting to the postseason first.


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