As we mentioned here, the Mavs have come a long way within the span of two-to-three weeks. In six games, the All-Star break will arrive and there will be just under 30 games left in the regular season. The marathon that is the regular season will turn the corner heading into the home stretch. Dallas is in the midst of an eight game winning streak, the longest active streak in the NBA. At the 50-game mark of the season, Dallas find themselves a solid 20 games above .500 (35-15). Coach Rick Carlisle has mentioned that the team is "building momentum" and "making strides." They have made those strides on both ends of the floor. Over the last eight games, the offense has really found its groove by averaging 103.6 points per game. It does not hurt to have a healthy Dirk Nowitzki back in the mix as well.
The Mavericks have had to endure their ups and downs, but the team knows what the elixir is to fix their woes, playing tough defense. "At the beginning of the season, we were on a roll and communicating out there," center Tyson Chandler said. "In training camp, there was such an emphasis on defense. We were out there, we were executing and this team has always had firepower on the offensive end. With the injuries, we got away from that. We started focusing too much on offense and how we could make up for Caron and Dirk being out. Not only could we not make up for the offense, but we stopped on the defensive end. Now that we've got guys back healthy, we're starting to come back to our roots and focus on defense." The intensity has gone up and the results are backing that up. During their winning streak, the Mavericks are allowing 95.8 points per game.
Over the course of the year, various members of the team have explained that they are confident in their ability to win games no matter who is in the lineup. They have done the best they can when having to deal with the musical chairs scenario of their starting lineup and in-game rotations. Not every team can depend on a player like Brian Cardinal or JJ Barea to be inserted into the starting lineup and continue working without a significant drop-off.
Most teams don't have the luxury of going to their third center and being able to have the confidence in that player. The Mavs do have that luxury and confidence in Ian Mahinmi. Brendan Haywood has had his curious case chronicled here on MMB. Players in the organization have acknowledged that Haywood has been inconsistent but have been quick to mention that he is working hard. Having a player like Mahinmi is just another example of how the team is given lemons and makes lemonade.
When Dallas can play up to their potential, they do have the ability to beat any team in the league. Dallas has a record of 7-3 against the league's best teams (Boston, Miami, San Antonio, LA Lakers and Orlando). It should be noted that all three losses against those teams had Nowitzki in street clothes as he was recovering from his sprained right knee. The win on Friday against Boston gave Dallas 19 wins against teams with winning record, tied for best in the league with Spurs. Their lone major blemish against a division leader comes in the form of the Chicago Bulls (0-2). "At this point we've been beaten the top of the top," Chandler said. "The thing we have to do is continue to be consistent. I love the way we're playing right now. We're playing great basketball at both ends of the floor."
The team has two major things in their favor: help is on the way and the schedule. According to ESPN.com and their Relative Percent Index or RPI, the Mavs are ranked at the top in terms of strength of schedule (SOS). For a frame of reference, the Lakers rank 28th in the league in SOS and the Spurs rank 7th. That means the schedule should get easier for the Mavericks along the way and they can continue to gain momentum to end the season. It will also allow them to incorporate pieces into the mix. The Mavericks also have their secret European weapons waiting in the wings, Roddy Beaubois and Peja Stojakovic. Beaubois has the element of the unknown and the team is hopeful he can be the missing piece in terms of a running mate for Nowitzki. Stojakovic is a world-class shooter and has been working on his conditioning. As of today, the signs still seem to indicate that he will return to the court on Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "When we get Roddy and Peja back, that'll be our team and we'll see what we can do," Jason Kidd said.
The trade deadline still hovers around the league. For those keeping track, there are 18 days until the trade deadline. As always, the Mavericks will keep the phone lines open and see what is out there in terms of an opportunistic deal. With Mark Cuban as the owner, you know things will be interesting. "Some teams are afraid to make a deal. That's not us," Cuban said.
While the team struggled a few weeks ago, it appeared that they needed a boost with a major deal. Now, the team could use additional help, any team could, but it appears now that they could use just a tweak here and here. The Mavericks have a free roster spot and still have their trade exceptions in play. Their exception from the Quinton Ross deal (just over $1 million) expires on the 14th of February. They'll still have their Matt Carroll ($4.3 million) and Eddie Najera ($3 million) exceptions from the Charlotte deal to work with. The team still has their Mid-Level Exception and Lower-Level Exception, pro-rated, at their disposal. Those could come in handy when the annual run of buyouts occur. If teams are unable to make deals for players they are looking to unload, those teams tend to bite the bullet and buy out a player
The season is about to crank up as it hits the stretch run. Despite their results, the boys in blue continue to stay out of the spotlight. They remain the hunter, not the hunted, and that might be the best case scenario for them. The Mavericks are going to make sure they do everything in their power to have an influence on how the West will be won.