After last summer's DeAndre Jordan debacle, nothing was expected from the Mavericks this year. Finally, they'd be punished for their constant, ineffective pursuit of superstar free agents. Finally, they'd see the dangers of ignoring the draft thanks to a roster strapped for younger talent. Across from them, the Rockets, fresh off a run to the Western Conference Finals, were a trendy dark horse championship pick. Yet Wednesday, it was the Mavericks who won 88-86, and the Rockets who sit two games back of them, out of the playoffs with just a week left this season.
There's reasons for the Mavericks' five-game winning streak that has salvaged their playoff hopes, but none are satisfying explanations. Look at their roster and it's hard to avoid glaring discrepancies, even before removing Chandler Parsons, done for the year with knee surgery, and Deron Williams, also potentially done for the season.
"We're a component oriented roster," Rick Carlisle said. "The sum of our parts is much greater than any individual guy."
The Mavericks' weirdness is season-long. They found a mothballed Raymond Felton among the spiderwebs at the end of their bench and turned him into a reliable rotation player again. They nearly made Zaza Pachulia an All-Star starter. Put them next to the Rockets, this season's greatest disappointment, and the contrast could give you whiplash.
Alternatively, Houston has real, tangible stars. James Harden led his team in scoring, dropping 26 and being brilliant at times, hitting shots that the Mavericks could only shrug at. Dwight Howard was as dominant Wednesday as he's been in a month, muscling his way for 14 points and 16 rebounds. The duo fits the prototypical "star" mold: supreme athletes with marketable faces and a perchance for highlights.
The Mavericks' counter was laughable on paper, yet it worked on Wednesday. J.J. Barea topped Harden by dropping 27, an extension of his performance that earned him Western Conference Player of the Week. Dallas' most effective center was Salah Mejri, an undrafted 29-year-old rookie who barely played prior to the All-Star break. Dirk Nowitzki's brilliance in March has been replaced with a cold spell -- he scored seven on 2-of-8 shooting Wednesday -- and Dallas keeps winning anyway.
If the Mavericks as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts, as Carlisle agrees with, then the Rockets' whole is significantly less than it. You could make an argument that Dallas is the team overachieving the most based on what they're working with, while the Rockets are doing the least. Houston's fall from grace, after playing for a chance to represent the West in the Finals last playoffs, is stunning.
Missing Parsons and Williams, the Mavericks have slowed way down. Carlisle preached pace all season -- the goal all season has been for the ball to pass half court with 21 seconds or more left on the shot clock -- but since the injuries, the Mavericks now use all 24 seconds of the shot clock. During their five-game win streak, they've held all five teams under 90 points, giving opponents fewer possessions and taking even more care to avoid the fast breaks that has ravaged them this season.
"Absolutely" the Mavericks are playing better than they should on paper, Wesley Matthews admitted.
"But the thing that we're doing is getting tighter on the defensive end," Matthew said. "Paying more attention to detail, getting back on defense, making a play against the halfcourt, gives us a better chance."
Houston falling into the Mavericks' slow-it-down trap is a mistake that falls on the head coach, but J.B. Bickerstaff never should have been dropped into this impossible situation when Kevin McHale was fired earlier in the year. He's clearly overwhelmed, failing to call pick-and-rolls for Howard even when Nowitzki was the center across from him and never trying Josh Smith off the bench, even though Smith single-handedly eviscerated the Mavericks at the rim in last year's first-round series.
"We stopped doing the things that are conducive to us," Trevor Ariza said. "We played to their (the Mavericks') pace instead of playing to our pace."
But the Rockets can't only blame this on pace, just like they can't only blame this on a final play where Jason Terry may or may not have been fouled, just like they can't only blame it on J.B. Bickerstaff, just like they can't only blame it on any one thing in particular. It's everything. It's the thought that Howard's active, engaged game stood out from his season to date. It's that he let Pachulia beat him off the dribble with the shot clock expiring. It's Harden's mediocre first three quarters. It's a loose ball here or there. It's the Mavericks' rookie Justin Anderson sprinting from halfcourt to pin Ariza's easy layup on the glass.
The juxtaposition of the Mavericks and the Rockets was impossible to miss Wednesday. Dallas took a shitty draw of cards and bluffed their way past everyone's expectations, while it looks like Houston has already left the table. The Rockets still may have the better future going forward. But that doesn't matter this year, and it sure doesn't matter to the Mavericks.
"You guys have to analyze the stat sheet to see who's scoring. We can't think that way," Carlisle said. "We're looking at the final score every night."