Following the consecutive wins over the fifth seed Los Angeles Lakers, the surging Dallas Mavericks set themselves up to be outside the play-in tournament with a favorable run down the final stretch. A certain mantra comes to mind when making sense of the 2020-21 Mavericks’ season: it’s always darkest before dawn.
Despite a rough start to 2021, Dallas persevered, as did the world, in a COVID19-infested reality. Adversity hit Dallas before the season commenced. Kristaps Porzingis missed the first nine contests of the season.
Continuing the theme of darkness, Dallas found itself under heavy scrutiny for its 8-12 start to the season. In a sporadic January, the Mavericks’ identity seemed lost. During the genesis of 2021, Dallas blazed a 4-game win streak but then lost the fire in January, losing its last five.
However, similar to a rainbow appearing after a day-long storm, peace evolves from strife. The Dallas Mavericks have since found solace following such a stressful period. 12-8 in the last 20 games, the once- below .500 team now has a shot at finishing in the top-5 of the Western Conference.
With 11 games left on Dallas’ schedule, three other teams are close in the standings: the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Portland Trail Blazers. The race for first-round home-court advantage or plummetting to the play-in tournament, risking playoff eligibility, is both a promising and cold reality for the four franchises.
While Dallas must solely focus on their performance rather than stress what-if scenarios or invest in analysis pointing out rival teams remaining schedules, the reality is Dallas needs a few breaks to obtain the 4-seed.
Denver Nuggets vs. the Dallas Mavericks
Before Jamal Murray‘s heartbreaking ACL injury, the Denver Nuggets were primed for a championship run. Not only by seemingly winning the battle for homecourt advantage in the first round but also the acquisition of Aaron Gordon. However, without Murray’s explosive postseason play, it’s doubtful Denver hoists up the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Yet, despite losing Nikola Jokic‘s pick-and-pop partner, the Nuggets showcase a 6-1 record. For now, the Lakers stand as the only direct threat to snag the 4-seed. Although the darkness of Murray’s injury clouds Denver’s postseason odds, the final stretch stands as the final challenge of the regular season.
The next 10 games feature six above-.500 teams waiting to spoil the Nuggets’ momentum. The six playoff contender opponents: Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers, the rejuvenated New York Knicks, starting lineup shuffling Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, and Portland Trail Blazers.
Despite the tough competition, it’s unlikely the Nuggets fall low enough for Dallas to snatch the 4-seed. Dallas would have to win its next seven games, and the Nuggets must find a way to implode down the stretch uncharacteristically. Realistically, the Lakers 5-seed is the goal.
The Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks
After the primetime Christmas Day spectacle, it didn’t appear the Lakers and Mavericks were on the same tier. However, after a combined 55 missed games from LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the tides have slightly shifted.
Going 4-6 in their last 10 games, the 2020 NBA champions play harder and smarter than their record suggests. Even in the Mavericks’ two wins versus the Lakers, only one of those games fell into a double-digit victory.
With Anthony Davis back in the lineup, the offense won’t suffer as it has without elite scorers on the court. Despite the recent history of the Lakers priming their stars for the postseason run, don’t expect the star to sit due to rest for the duration of the regular season.
Six of the last 11 games come against teams under .500. Going by the competitive nature LA showcased in its time without Davis and James, the Lakers will fare fine down the last section of the regular season. With contests versus the Phoenix Suns, Nuggets, Clippers, and Knicks, the recalibration for another championship run bodes well for the Lakers.
It’s a tight race regarding LA and Dallas’s push for the fifth spot. The room for error is hip-squeezing on the margins. Each loss threatens the easier road to the Finals for the Lakers. If the Lakers fall to the 6-spot, we finally witness the highly-anticipated playoff series with the Clippers. Only one loss stands between the Mavericks and Lakers.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. the Dallas Mavericks
NBA history proves Damian Lillard won’t go down without a valiant effort. Lillard caused the Mavericks much grief in their three meetings of the 2020-21 season. However, Portland’s defensive deficiencies don’t bode well for a deep playoff run. The Trail Blazers’ shortcomings are indicative of its 29th ranked defensive rating.
Although Dallas lost the regular-season series 2-1, Mavericks fans can find solace in their team, finishing with a 10.5 net rating. Considering Dallas has the easiest remaining schedule in the league, Portland’s season tie-breaker may not matter. Browsing Portland’s remaining 10 games, eight of them feature teams with a winning record.
Dallas’ future is in its hands with the slight lead over the Trail Blazers and the favorable schedule. Execution is key, more than usual. Keep a close eye on the Trail Blazers, as the seeding race for the six-seed with the Mavericks is closer than Anthony Davis’ eyebrows.
Considering the Lakers stars coming back into the lineup, and the ultimate concession in not playing the Clippers in the first round, it’s hard to fathom the Lakers falling to the 6-seed. Even with the series lead over the Lakers, all isn’t well in Dallas.
In light of the recent ankle scare of Porzingis, understandably, Dallas continues to tread lightly. Considering the Mavericks’ history of playing down to competition, dropping some games to inferior opponents is highly likely.
Also, in addition to the season-long struggle of getting up for certain teams, the strategy of easing the player load could spell the Mavericks as the 6-seed. Dallas finding rest in a condensed 71-game schedule has proven useful, especially considering the plight of some contenders, such as the Nuggets.
With the upper hand on the Clippers in the regular season, perhaps the Mavericks look for the 2020 postseason rematch.
Stats appear courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com