To be a true playoff team—doubly so in a staunch Western Conference—often requires great performances from heroes likely and unlikely alike.
Between Monta Ellis’ career night and Brandan Wright’s monstrous late-game block, the Phoenix Suns learned that truism the hard way Saturday night, falling to the postseason-bound Dallas Mavericks in a 101-98 thriller.
While the win put the Mavs in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, Phoenix now faces a must-win Monday showdown with the Memphis Grizzlies, against whom the Suns must vie for the West’s eighth and final spot.
Between the back-and-forth baskets and place-trading runs, those who witnessed Saturday’s game could be forgiven thinking the postseason had already begun—especially the 20,000 frenetic fans in live attendance.
In the end, it was a pair of former Golden State Warriors—Wright and Ellis—whose stretch heroics helped put the finishing touches on what has been a season of redemption for the Mavericks.
Ellis’ effort was particularly poignant: In the biggest game of the season, Dallas’ mercurial misfit mauled the Suns with a combination of timely jumpers and merciless slashes, registering a season-high 37 points on a fantastically efficient 15-of-23 shooting.
Dirk Nowitzki had a hand in the matter, of course: 23 points on 8-of-15 from the floor, eight rebounds, three assists, a pair of steals and a block—an honest night’s stat-stuffing if ever there was one.
The Mavericks will have a full three days off before closing out the regular season in Memphis, a game that promises profound seeding implications regardless of the outcome.
Sure, Dallas’ spot is safe. But that might not be true of its playoff prospects.
If the postseason began tomorrow, the Mavericks would be pitted against No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder, over whom Dallas prevailed in two of the teams’ three meetings.
Should Memphis beat both the Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday) and Suns (Monday), Dallas would have to best the Grizzlies (Wednesday) in order to avoid a first-round date with the San Antonio Spurs, who swept the Mavericks 4-0.
Which brings us back to the Suns, who need a little bit of luck to keep their dreams of a postseason berth alive. First, they need to win both of their remaining games—against the Grizzlies (Monday) and Sacramento Kings (Wednesday)—and hope that Memphis loses to either the Lakers or Mavericks.
If Phoenix wins out and Memphis loses to Dallas, the Suns would be slated to take on the Spurs in Round 1, while the Mavericks would get OKC.
It would be a slightly different path than the one AZSports.com's Craig Grialou predicted in the video below, but as long as it ended with the Suns in the playoffs, it will have been one well forged.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry—so are the Suns’.
Needless to say, the race is far from over for the two teams desperately gripping the conference cliff.
On the one hand you have the Grizzlies: playoff staples, veteran-laden, healthy and humming after a season riddled with bad stretches and poorly timed injuries.
|Memphis||@ L.A. Lakers||@ Phoenix||OFF||vs. Dallas|
|Phoenix||OFF||vs. Memphis||OFF||@ Sacramento|
On the other, you have the Suns: preseason lottery lock, precocious to the point of being charming, a dangerous draw for any first-round foe.
Monday night will find the eyes of the NBA world fixed westward, where Memphis and Phoenix look to put the playoff picture into final focus. And it might just be Dallas prefers it that way, gaze trained elsewhere—first-round fodder as many believe it’ll be for the Spurs or Thunder.
But if there’s a method to be found in how Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle went about constructing this year’s Mavs, it lies in the selflessness with which they’ve survived and so often thrived.
As of Saturday, the Mavericks ranked third in the NBA in offensive efficiency (109), fifth in assist ratio (18.2) and fifth in turnover ratio (12.7). In short: a finely tuned offensive machine built upon far more than a pair of high-priced parts.
Speaking to ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon back in early April, Nowitzki emphasized how important his team’s individual versatility has been to the system’s success:
We're really skilled. We've got a good mix of playmakers, drivers, shooters. Vince is like an all-around weapon that is a pleasure to have. You can post him, you can pick-and-roll him, you can iso him out there. He can do a lot of things out there. This team is definitely skilled. With Monta and Devin, we have two relentless drivers that always get in there, get to the foul line, get us into the bonus, get us open shots. We've got a bunch of guys that can make plays.
On Saturday, it was Ellis and Wright. In Dallas’ crucial 113-107 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on April 3, it was Jose Calderon and Vince Carter burying big shots galore. More than once it’s been Dirk himself—impossible turnarounds and timely jumpers in all their vintage verve.
Though their fortunes were for a night divergent, Dallas and Phoenix both have plenty of work to do—for the Mavs, making sure they hold steady at the No. 7 seed; for the Suns, showing the world their future is now.
Indeed, if the regular season’s final four days are anything like tonight, the outcome is sure to seem secondary to what we see on the screen: teams fighting for their conference’s last two spots as if it were the Finals.