(manager's note: Bailey will contribute a column or article of some kind every two weeks until the end of the season.)
With over three-quarters of the Mavs' schedule played, which five games have been the best so far? And why?
Some of these choices are probably obvious to anyone who has watched the Mavericks this year, but I wanted to be able to say something more about why these five games are the best other than "they were so awesome you guys." So first of all, let's address the criteria. Each of these games made the list through some combination of three factors: (1) How exciting was the game? (2) How good was the opponent? and (3) What relevance did it have to the Mavericks' playoff chances?
I think these five games (technically six, but I only cheated a little) are definitively the best so far, based on these criteria. I won't deny there is some subjectivity in the order of the list, but I will explain each choice. If you disagree, feel free to have a very robust conversation about it in the comments below.
5. Mavericks beat the Trailblazers 108-106 on December 7
This game may have been the most exciting of the season. The ending was certainly one of the...oddest. The game seemed won when the Mavericks inbounded to Monta up by 3 with only 9 seconds left. But after a bizarre sequence of events involving a no-call on an intentional foul, two replays and a debatable 3-pointer by Damian Lillard, the game came down to this:
I still can't quite believe that worked. Monta is so hit or miss on those kinds of wild long jumpers. This game made the list mostly on thrill factor alone. This was an exciting, back-and-forth game against a quality opponent that came down to incredible theatrics at the buzzer. Fantastic.
At the time, this win seemed like a huge deal. Portland had the best record in the West at the time and thus were arguably the best team the Mavs had beaten so far. As the 1 seed, Portland also seemed like a potential first round playoff opponent. However, the Blazers have since fallen to the 5 seed and seem likely to stay there. So in hindsight, this win wasn't all that important in terms of the playoffs, and that's why it only comes it at #5. The Mavs are much more likely to face the Spurs or the Thunder in the playoffs than the Blazers, and it's best for our collective mental health if we just don't think too hard about that right now.
Or maybe things will work out just right so that the Mavs face the Rockets instead. Which brings me to #4 on the list.
4. Mavs avenge an early season loss, beating the Rockets 123-120 on November 20
This game was so much fun, wasn't it? Dirk and Monta were looking very "Batman and Robin" putting in 35 and 37 points, respectively. Both teams put up plenty of offensive fireworks. Mavs fans at the AAC got their first chance to let Dwight Howard know how they felt about being spurned in free agency. Dirk passed Reggie Miller for fifteenth place on the all-time scoring list. And to top it all off, the Mavs played some defense in the fourth quarter to secure the close victory.
The best part of the game was the feeling that the Mavs had somehow avenged a close, but ultimately very ugly, loss to Houston a few weeks earlier. It was also one of the first times that the Mavericks felt more like a two-star team rather than simply Dirk and some other guys. I'm still not entirely sold that Monta is the Robin we've always yearned for, but he certainly looked it on this night against the Rockets.
If I were more optimistic about the Mavs passing Golden State for the 6 seed, I probably would've ranked this game towards the top of the list. This game really proved to me that the Mavs can hang with our suddenly more glamorous friends down south, which will be huge if we get a rematch in the playoffs. The Mavericks are 2-2 against the Rockets this season, so I like our chances against them in the first round far more than the other two (probably more likely) options.
3. Mavs handle the Grizzlies 110-96 on February 5
This win is the most important one in terms of making the playoffs. Some could argue it should be higher on this list, but I have it here because it simply wasn't all that exciting a game. The Mavs won fairly easily against a Mike Conley-less Grizz. Additionally, this game reminded me that the Mavs chose Gal Mekel over Nick Calathes, which still feels like a huge bummer.
This win meant that if the Mavs and Grizzlies finish the season tied in the standings, the Mavs own the tie-breaker. It was the Mavericks third victory against Memphis this season, and one in which the good guys were never really in danger of losing. Yes, the Mavs did their typical "give up a bunch of points late" schtick; only this team can make a blowout seem worrisome. In the end, however, Dallas still won by fourteen points. In Memphis.
With the Grizzlies currently only a game back of the Mavericks in the standings, this was a crucial win from a big picture standpoint. So it may not have been as nerve-wracking or crazy exciting as other games on this list, but it was arguably the single most important game of the season, purely in terms of whether or not the Mavs make the postseason.
2. Mavs end losing streak by beating the Blazers 103-98 on March 7
This game really had everything. You want the giddy excitement of seeing the Mavs blowing out a good opponent? Here's a 40-10 Mavericks lead to being the game. You want to see the Mavericks survive another inevitable blown lead? You got it! Exciting plays? Did you see that Devin Harris and-1 to seal the deal?
All in all, other games on this list had some combination of most of the elements that made this such a great win. The thing that really put it over the top for me was context. The Mavs were slumping big time going into this game. A three-game losing streak might not seem all that terrible, but it was Dallas's worst losing streak of the season at a time when the Mavs couldn't afford any losses. In each of the three that were lost, it felt like Dallas could hang with the opponent for most of the game but simply couldn't make anything happen to seal the deal. This Portland win seemed to reinvigorate the Mavericks.
We all know that the Mavericks aren't going to hold onto big leads. If they are going to win big games and make any noise in the playoffs, they're going to have to show the resilience that was the defining trait of the title team. They have to survive blown leads and learn to really work together to play their best basketball at the end of games. The Mavericks did so against the Blazers last week. I'm putting this win at #2 because I want to believe that it set a tone for the final stretch of the season.
1. Mavs win both gritty defensive struggles against the Pacers
Okay so I cheated just a little here. Both of these wins were big for a few different reasons, but I wanted to keep some variety in this list. When the Mavs beat the Pacers in Indiana on the eve of the All-Star Break, everyone was justifiably excited. Dallas did what no one thought they could possibly do: win a low-scoring, gritty, defensive basketball game. And they did it against the NBA's best gritty defensive team (sorry Chicago). In their house. On the second night, of a back-to-back after a humiliating blowout loss to the once and future Charlotte Hornets. Mavs fans went into the break with many a joyful feeling in our hearts, and rightfully so.
It was a very similar story during the rematch a few nights ago, albeit with a bit more scoring this time around. The truly impressive thing about this second Pacers win was that it showed Dallas can beat a good team even on a night that Dirk struggles. Devin Harris was finally showing his full potential. Vince Carter was giving effort like a man a decade younger. Monta, Jose, and Shawn Marion all scored in double figures. And the three-headed monster at center was just good enough to keep Roy Hibbert in check.
The first Pacers game proved the Mavs can play defense when everyone really commits to it. The second proved that maybe (BIG maybe) this is the first Mavericks team we've seen since the title run that can actually be well-rounded enough that Dirk doesn't have to carry the entire team on his back the whole way. And the Mavs swept one of the best teams in the league this year.
Look for Kirk's follow-up column, the five worst losses, to come tomorrow.