Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the Western Conference is still stacked with talent. The difference is that this year's true talent lies at the top. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks are the legitimate contenders in the West. There are troublesome teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets. The lower-level playoff teams should not be a major issues for the Mavericks due to youth, mismatched personnel or an impending talent implosion. The last handful of playoff runs have left the Mavericks merely as the one-and-done boys with their first round exits. So can the Mavericks truly make a deep run in the playoffs?
Having Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup will clearly go a long way in determining how far the Mavericks will ultimately go. The Mavericks are 2-7 without Nowitzki in the lineup, they are 38-9 with Nowitzki in the lineup. "We've played well so far against everybody," Nowitzki said. "We've beat everybody so far. Beat the Lakers. Beat the Heat. Beat Orlando. Beat the Celtics twice. In the West, we've beat San Antonio. So we've basically beat all the good teams in the league, so we should be ready for a great second half of the season."
Another major factor that gives the Mavericks a chance is the play of Tyson Chandler. The big man has been doing some incredible work on both ends of the floor as his average is close to mirroring a double-double, 10.5 points with the 9.4 rebounds. His energy and toughness has given the Mavs a new sense of hope. "My goal coming here was to make an impact on the team and change the culture of the team," said Chandler. "And although I feel like we’re not completely there, we’re headed in the right direction. So, I feel like we’ve done a good job so far."
If the Mavericks want to make it to the NBA finals, they will have to deal with either the San Antonio Spurs or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The San Antonio Spurs, the I-35 rivals, are playing at a ridiculously high level and they have truly been impressive. All things considered, they have also been very fortunate. The Spurs have not had to deal with significant time lost to their key players due to injuries or other issues. When you compare that to the Mavericks, they have totaled 102 games missed due to injury, suspension or illness. In addition, San Antonio has changed their philosophy by playing at a faster tempo and preserving players key players such as Tim Duncan. Will they be able to flip the switch and go back to the old-Spurs formula when it comes to playing playoff basketball?
The Spurs have built up a fear and intimidation factor across the league. The Mavericks do not fear the Spurs, nor should they. San Antonio has the best record in the league and they have a ton of depth. That is all well and good, but the records can be thrown out the window when the Mavs and the Spurs face off in the playoffs. The teams know each other inside and out and it is just a matter of who can make the most out of critical possessions to win the series. When both teams were at full strength in November, Dallas ended the Spurs' 12-game win streak in San Antonio. Dallas does know that San Antonio does not have an answer for Nowitzki. Last year's playoff series also showed that Rodrigue Beaubois could play a pivotal role in a series based on the fact that quick guards even give issues to the mighty Spurs.
When you look at the Los Angeles Lakers, they do have Kobe Bryant and he does provide plenty of problems in a seven-game series. The two-time defending championships are piling up some troubling losses, but everyone knows that the champions are just going through the motions and they will flip the switch when the playoffs come. If you are underestimating the Lakers, you are in trouble. "I think (the Lakers are) struggling a little bit. But I think after back-to-back championships, after going to July almost every year, I think they're going to be OK," Nowitzki said. "I think they're going to step it up after the break and, to me, the Lakers are still the team to beat. They're still the same team, they've got the length, they've got the talent." They have size with the forwards and centers, but Mavericks have their own size and can match up with the Lakers in that department. Los Angeles does not have a lot of depth or speed at the point guard position. The Mavericks have Jason Kidd as the starter and they can also throw JJ Barea and Rodrigue Beaubois at the Lakers. If the Lakers have issues with quick guards, the point guards off of the bench for the Mavs should give the them issues.
When you look at the threats in the East, the Mavericks have shown that they can play the Boston Celtics and play them in defensive-minded games. Dallas had to use defense to trigger their offense to sweep Boston in their regular season series. The Celtics like to be physical and use intimidation against their opponents. The addition of Tyson Chandler goes a long way in taking away the soft label Dallas has dealt with over previous years.
Dallas also swept the regular season series with the Miami Heat. Miami has the big three, but they still need another year or so before they can really have a roster that could make it through the grind of the playoffs. If push came to shove and the Mavericks did face the Heat in the finals, you know that Dallas would do everything in their power to make sure to make amends for 2005-2006.
Orlando has weapons that can give the Mavericks issues, but they have shown that they have pieces to throw at Dwight Howard. That gives them the luxury to stay home on the shooters that the Magic possess. By doing that, the shooters do not have the luxury of having open space to get their shots off. When both sides were healthy in late December, the Mavericks defeated the Magic in Orlando.
The Chicago Bulls actually present a big problem as they beat the Mavericks in both match-ups during the regular season. Rick Carlisle has mentioned that the Bulls have the strongest motor in the league. The Bulls' ability to play tough defense and rebound the ball gave the Mavericks issues. Derrick Rose, alone, can give teams problems with his ability to weave into the lane.
A major factor that is a strength for the Mavericks is their depth, especially coming off of the bench. "We've got one of the best benches in the league," Coach Rick Carlisle said. Over the course of the season, players like JJ Barea, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Brian Cardinal, Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi have all played critical and significant roles off of the bench. Jason Terry has led the charge and over his last 10 games, Terry has averaged just under 32 minutes and scored 16.9 points/game on 46.3% shooting from the field. "Maybe I can put a stranglehold back on that sixth-man award,'' he said. "Hopefully people will start talking about it.'' Terry shares the opinion of his teammates by saying he is convinced that the Mavericks' bench is "second to none,'' but he does feel the reserves do not get the credit that they are due. "When we get to the Finals and win it all, then everybody will realize what we mean to this team,'' he said with a big smile.
The depth allows the Mavericks to use great ball movement going and it allows them to score and score in waves. Dallas has scored 100-plus points in 12 of its last 13 games. The Mavericks are 29-2 when they reach the century mark. Going into the break, at least five Mavericks have scored in double figures in 13 consecutive games. Dallas is 27-4 when at least five players score 10-plus points.
Carlisle has his own opinion of the depth, how about an outside perspective. The Mavericks defeated the Sacramento Kings, 116-100, on February 16. The Mavericks had eight players score in double figures and nine players played at least 20 minutes of action. Kings Coach Paul Westphal, who spent time in the Mavericks orginization as an assistant on Avery Johnson's staff has a strong opinion on the Mavericks. "Yeah, they're loaded. You start talking about the guys you have to defend on the three-point line," Westphal said. "You go down their team and you've got Dirk (Nowitzki) and you've got (Peja Stojakovic), two of the greatest three-point shooters in history, Jason Terry and don't forget about (Rodridgue) Beaubois, he's back, and then there's (JJ) Barea and (Brian) Cardinal is shooting 47 percent (from three-point range) and oh, by the way, Jason Kidd, he's made 6-of-7 on us.
"So, you can't slump off those guys behind the line and at the same time they're very good at attacking the basket and they play together. They know how to use screens and dive to the basket...They're a very, very smart veteran team with great weapons and they're very unselfish, too."
The scary thing is this Mavericks team is just scratching the surface and they have yet to hit their peak. They can still get stronger on playing team defense with Tyson Chandler protecting the rim and players like Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson working on locking down elite perimeter scorers. The bench can still find new ways to attack and score in waves. The Mavs have the depth to where they will be able to get their key older players like Jason Kidd and Jason Terry plenty of rest before the playoffs. The ability to have your key players stay fresh and ready when it comes to the playoffs will pay off in a big way.
They still have room to grow as they are just now figuring out a role for Peja Stojakovic, and they are in the midst of unleashing arguably their most dynamic scoring threat in Rodrigue Beaubois. When all else fails, you still have Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks have one of the league's best records and they still fall under the radar. The reason is likely due to the fact that the Mavs are in search of their 11th straight 50-win seasons and have escaped the Western Conference playoffs with only one conference championship banner to show for the impressive resume. They have shown the success over the regular season, but they need to show that they can survive and thrive when it comes to playoff basketball. Being under the radar can create a chip on their shoulder and they are ready to make one big push and prove that they belong in the championship conversation.
So are the Mavericks truly championship contenders? "Absolutely. Absolutely," said Mark Cuban. "We're playing well. We've got some potential. I think we have the ability to win a championship, but we have a long way to go before we're ready to win a championship. We've got to play every possession with discipline, and we're not there yet."
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