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The Mavericks find themselves caught in the middle

With the end of the regular season in sight, the Mavericks will have to make some choices as they prepare for the postseason.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that the Mavericks find themselves in the midst of opportunity. Long before they reached the final month of the season, where they have one of the friendliest schedules in the league, many circled this time as a chance for the team to make up ground or solidify their playoff spot.

The demands of this season for all 30 teams have been immense, and the toll of it is sprouting up in all corners of the league: injury, exhaustion, safety protocols, have left the bottom half of the Western conference playoff picture messy. Perhaps that messiness could be more of an advantage for Dallas, whose schedule should theoretically relieve pressure in-game. Theoretically.

So how does Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks approach these final games? After two impressive victories against the Los Angeles Lakers, who continue to face injury issues, the Mavs are within arm’s reach of the fifth spot in the West (something that was unthinkable a month or so ago). They also have the benefit of the Portland Trail Blazers being in absolute freefall, going a startling 4-10 so far in the month of April.

Basic competitive instinct would say that Luka Doncic & Co. should make the final push, trying to steal the fifth seed from the Lakers in the final weeks. There is only one nagging issue: the Mavericks keep losing the easy ones. Just in the month of April the Mavericks have lost to the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and then the Sacramento Kings twice in the span of eight days.

But this isn’t just an April problem. The Mavericks are a bit of an oddity this season, occasionally keeping pace or dominating a contender then turning around and laying an egg against a tanking team. Splitting the league into three tiers by record, the Mavericks have gone 10-12 against the top ten teams (they are ninth in the league by record), and 9-9 against bottom 10 opponents. That is to say the Mavericks are finding similar results against the best and worst teams in the league.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Some would say that is the randomness of the NBA, a make or miss league, yadda yadda. But underneath all of that might be cause for concern, nothing more concerning (and infuriating) that the Mavericks are 11-14 against teams with a losing record.

Luka Doncic has remarked multiple times this season how the Mavericks have lacked energy. Some of this is certainly reflective of the demands of this season, and some on how hard they had to work to get themselves out of the hole dug in January. But energy and focus is also a choice, and too often its absence is evident early in games against “lesser” opponents. The difference between Monday night in Sacramento and Tuesday night at Golden State was palpable.

So what to do in the home stretch? The Mavericks will have opportunity here in the final days to nab some easy wins. Unfortunately too often when it should be an easy win the Mavericks haven’t made it easy on themselves — requiring a full 48-minute effort from Luka and on down the roster.

And that might be where Carlisle and the training staff take a gamble and cut their losses, opting for rest in preparation for a playoff push. Some will recall in the NBA Bubble, when the Mavericks could have made a push for sixth to finish the season, but instead focused on rest in key games.

Still, the danger lingers. The Mavericks are two games back of fifth, but are somehow also just 2.5 games ahead of the ninth spot in the West. Even with a light schedule, the pressure continues to mount with every dropped game. How they approach each contest inching closer to the postseason will be interesting to watch.