With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Mavericks, Rockets and Jazz are all tied up for No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. After Wednesday, all three teams stand with identical records -- 37 wins, 38 losses, and no clear answer for which team will be the odd one out.
On Tuesday, the Rockets rallied back down 20 points in the second half to beat the LeBron-less Cavaliers 106-100. Then on Wednesday, the Jazz nearly stunned the Warriors at home before losing in overtime 103-96. More important for Dallas' perspective, the Mavericks came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the New York Knicks.
Ahead of the Mavericks are the Portland Trail Blazers, up two games with a 39-36 record, and the Memphis Grizzlies, holding the No. 5 seed with a 41-34 record (a four game advantage on the three-team tie for seventh).
How hard is the Mavericks' path to the playoffs?
Let's take a look, with bold indicating games against each other. Oddly enough, the only three times these five teams meet will all be games played by the Mavericks.
|at Pistons||vs. Bulls||vs. Wolves||vs. Celtics||vs. Raptors|
|at Wolves||vs. Thunder||at Suns||vs. Heat||at Magic|
|vs. Rockets||at Mavericks||vs. Spurs||at Warriors||vs. Bulls|
|vs. Grizzlies||vs. Suns||vs. Clippers||at Kings||at Mavericks|
|at Clippers||vs. Lakers||at Nuggets||vs. Thunder||vs. Warriors|
|at Jazz||at Wolves||vs. Mavericks||vs. Wolves||at Clippers|
|vs. Spurs||vs. Kings||at Lakers||vs. Nuggets||at Warriors|
Among the three teams tied for the seventh seed (Mavs, Rockets, Jazz), the Mavericks face the toughest road ahead. Of their seven remaining opponents, the Timberwolves are the only team who aren't in the playoffs or right on the edge. With games against both Houston and Utah over the next two weeks, things could sort themselves out rather quickly. The Mavericks also boast the most significant injuries of those three teams, with Deron Williams missing time and Chandler Parsons out for the season.
There is some hope for Dallas, however. Both the Clippers and Spurs are each essentially locked into their respective playoff positioning, barring some miracle. The Mavericks could be facing teams resting key players for the playoffs. And the Grizzlies are a huge question mark, given that they're giving huge minutes to several players they signed off the streets as injuries struck them hard.
How do the other team's schedules compare?
The Mavericks have one lottery team on their schedule, while the Rockets have five, the Jazz have four and the Trail Blazers have three. Utah is young and Houston has been the most wildly inconsistent team in the NBA this season, so no games are guaranteed to be wins. With that said, it's easy to imagine both teams winning at least four games down the stretch.
The Blazers are in position to win at least four games, too, with the three lottery teams, two chances at good Eastern Conference playoff opponents and an off chance they'll catch the Thunder resting players as the season winds down. (Portland also beat Oklahoma City once at full strength this season.) We'll dive into Memphis into a minute.
Could contenders resting their stars affect the playoffs?
Popularized by the Spurs, resting players heading into the postseason is a way of life for elite NBA teams. That suddenly seems important, as you look at the standings above where we italicized games that could involve resting stars. Utah and Dallas both play the Clippers and Spurs towards the end of the year, but the Mavericks play them later. San Antonio will definitely rest players -- choosing to do it against the Jazz, not the Mavericks, could be the difference between the eighth and ninth seed.
The Clippers are in the same scenario, although in an attempt to bring Blake Griffin back up to speed, it's possible they skip rest entirely and just lighten the minutes. The Warriors are gunning for 73 wins, so it's uncertain how much they'll rest their stars. When and where DNPs are handed out could be of utmost importance during these final two weeks.
What about Memphis?
Marc Gasol is out for the year, Mike Conley is out until at least the season's final week and the rest of the lineup is riddled with injuries, too. On Wednesday, it looked like the depleted Memphis roster would beat the Nuggets, but Denver prevailed. Now, with eight losses in their last 10 games, Matt Barnes leading the team in minutes, and Jordan Farmar and Xavier Munford (who?) filling in the rotation, you have to wonder when the Grizzlies will win again?
Their schedule is the toughest one of the five teams above, getting just two games against a lottery teams (and Chicago is a ninth seed). They play the Warriors twice more, which seem like obvious losses given Golden State's record hunt. They play the Clippers in their penultimate game, but there's a good chance at least Blake Griffin plays anyway. And the Mavericks could guarantee them another loss by beating them when they come to town.
Still, there's no way they lose every game, right? That's the problem with Memphis' four-game lead -- just one win, and the Mavericks have to win four or five games to catch them.
What about tiebreakers?
Two-team ties are settled first by head-to-head records, then record against the division IF the teams are in the same division, and then record against the conference. Three-team ties are settled by head-to-head records among the tied teams, record against the division IF teams are all in the same division, and then record against the conference. (Here's the NBA link.)
We'll talk specifics later. There's too many scenarios still swirling around.
* * *
Here's how the Mavericks can make the playoffs.
1. Over the Jazz
Utah's a young team. If they slip up against, say, the Timberwolves, predictably lose to the Spurs and the Clippers, and somehow fall to the Mavericks at home, Dallas only needs to match their 3-4 record to finish with the No. 8 seed. That would give Dallas the 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker.
If Utah doesn't slip up, the Mavericks need to win four of their final seven games, including the head-to-head matchup. This is more difficult, but still one of the most likely playoff scenarios that exists.
2. Over the Grizzlies
I honestly believe Memphis could go winless in their final seven games, if the cards fall just right. If so, the Mavericks only need to go 4-3 (including beating Memphis in their one head-to-head game, of course) and they'll have the head-to-head tiebreaker, knocking the Grizzlies out with both teams sitting at 41-41.
3. Just by winning
All of the Mavericks' final seven games seem winnable, especially if the big boys rest their starters on the right nights. A 5-2 record, regardless who Dallas beats, should put them in the playoffs.
You look at the roster, though, missing Parsons and never that great to begin with, and that's when the obvious doubts creep into this scenario. Even going 3-4 or 4-3 is asking a lot out of this team with significant problems. At no point has Dallas shown the ability to rattle off seven wins in nine tries. But technically yes, this is a scenario that would work. Certainly, it's the best case scenario, even if by far the least likely.
Here's how the Mavericks won't make the playoffs
1. Over the Rockets
Again, sure: the Mavericks could just win five of their last seven and easily find a playoff berth. But even with Parsons, that would have been a tough sell. Assuming a normal, reasonable finish given the tough schedule, where they win three or four games, the Rockets would have to completely collapse and lose at least two or more games against their five lottery team opponents for Dallas to catch them. While possible, the Mavericks earning the tiebreaker over Houston is very difficult, so Dallas would likely need to win one more game than them. Given each team's schedule, that's too difficult a task to expect the team to achieve.
2. Over the Trail Blazers
With a two-game lead and an easy enough schedule, Portland's all but locked in.