If the NBA season is a marathon, we’ve passed the 17-mile marker.
That isn’t quite the metaphor Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle would use to describe what lies ahead for his team between now and the end of the regular season.
Last week coming out of the All-Star break, he called each game a “Super Bowl.” While the nine-of-10 stretch at home the Mavs now find themselves in does present its own unique problems, Carlisle has said the Mavs must take advantage of the matter at hand as things continue to wind down.
“I love the schedule. I think this is a great opportunity for us,” he said this week. “It has its challenges. Playing a big string of games at home is very challenging. But, you know what, bring ’em on. Bring all the challenges on. We’ve got to face up to it. And if we can’t do it, then we don’t belong in the hunt.”
Before deciding who does and doesn’t belong in the hunt, however, it’s important to take a look at what lies ahead both for the Mavs and for their opponents through, say, the month of March. There are still plenty of games left on the schedule and the standings will likely change every day. As the marathon shifts into 10K, the 10K to a 5K, and the 5K to a 100-meter dash, the pressure will also mount and the stakes will only grow higher. Here’s who Dallas, Memphis, Portland, Houston, and Utah will be dueling with as the race for the playoffs heats up.
Home Games in March: 8 (vs. SAC, vs. Utah, vs. PHO, vs. NOP, vs. MIN, vs. LAC, vs. SA, vs. DEN)
Road Games in March: 8 (@ CLE, @ BOS, @ ATL, @ HOU, @ MIL, @ PHO, @ LAL, @ SA)
Games vs. .500+ teams in March: 6
Memphis has the benefit of tying with Dallas to play the most games at home of the bunch, but the Grizzlies also have to play eight games away from home. Without center Marc Gasol for the rest of the season due to a foot injury which required surgery, the Grizz will be shorthanded in the frontcourt down the stretch. Zach Randolph can still hold it down in the middle, however, and point guard Mike Conley continues to produce and run one of the best floor games of any point guard in the league.
The Grizzlies’ most challenging games are, for the most part, spaced out throughout the month. But from March 7-12, Memphis plays at Cleveland, at Boston, and finally comes home for a game against the Pelicans before traveling to Atlanta for the second night of a back-to-back. Combined with a home-and-home with the Spurs late in the month, March is no cakewalk for Memphis. (That will be a common theme for each of these teams.)
Home Games in March: 8 (vs. ORL, vs. SAC, vs. LAC, vs. DET, vs. IND, vs. GSW, vs. POR, vs. NYK)
Road Games in March: 7 (@ DEN, @ CHA, @ CLE, @ POR, @ GSW, @ SAC, @ DEN)
Games vs. .500+ teams in March: 9
The Mavericks play only 15 games in the month, after having the busiest January in the NBA. Dallas also plays only two back-to-backs in the month, one of which includes a big home matchup against the Clippers, a potential first-round opponent, so that level of workload should allow the Mavs to stay relatively well-rested as the meaning of each game grows exponentially as the month wears on.
The most pivotal — and potentially daunting — stretch of the month comes from March 16-25, when the Mavs will play at Cleveland and then play a home-and-home with Portland book-ended by another home-and-home series against Golden State. The Mavs won their only other meeting with the Blazers earlier this season, meaning one win in that series would give Dallas the tiebreaker when it comes to playoff seeding. Otherwise, you know Cleveland is significant, and Golden State lost in Dallas late in December. Those are going to be huge, must-watch games, and they’ll be good tests for the Mavericks.
Home Games in March: 6 (vs. WAS, vs. ORL, vs. DAL, vs. PHI, vs. SAC, vs. BOS)
Road Games in March: 10 (@ NYK, @ BOS, @ TOR, @ DET, @ GSW, @ OKC, @ SA, @ NOP, @ DAL, @ LAC)
Games vs. .500+ teams in March: 10
Aside from the aforementioned home-and-home with the Mavs, the Blazers have a very, very challenging March ahead, with games against the Celtics (twice), Raptors, Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs, each of whom are a top-3 seed in their respective conference. What’s even more challenging is all of those games, with the exception of one against Boston, come on the road.
The Blazers have been the hottest team in the NBA this side of Golden State, however, so if there’s one team that could potentially navigate its way through that arduous schedule, it’s Portland. The Blazers were 19-26 at one point this season, and 13-out-of-15 later are now tied with the Mavericks. The NBA is a crazy, crazy league. A lot can change in no time.
Home Games in March: 7 (vs. NOP, vs. MEM, vs. LAC, vs. MIN, vs. Utah, vs. TOR, vs. CHI)
Road Games in March: 9 (@ CHI, @ TOR, @ PHI, @ BOS, @ CHA, @ ATL, @ OKC, @ IND, @ CLE)
Games vs. .500+ teams in March: 12
Speaking of changes, perhaps no club as had a stranger season than the Rockets. One year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance, Houston is now battling to qualify for the postseason. That doesn’t change the fact that James Harden and Dwight Howard make up one of the best two-man combinations in the NBA. Harden, in particular, has turned it on lately as well, scoring at least 20 points in every game but one dating back to Jan. 17.
The Rockets have a daunting road schedule approaching, however, as they are about to embark on a five-game East Coast swing which includes games at Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and Charlotte. Then, they’ll return home to play the Grizzlies and Clippers. Later in the month, they’ll play the Thunder, the Raptors (again), and the Cavaliers. The NBA ain’t easy, folks.
Home Games in March: 6 (vs. ATL, vs. WAS, vs. CLE, vs. PHO, vs. LAL, vs. GSW)
Road Games in March: 10 (@ TOR, @ MEM, @ NOP, @ GSW, @ SAC, @ CHI, @ MIL, @ HOU, @ OKC, @ MIN)
Games vs. .500+ teams in March: 8
Utah shares the distinct honor with Portland of playing the most road games in the month of the five teams, with 10. Even the Jazz’ home games are going to be difficult, with showdowns against both the Cavaliers and the Warriors looming. Keep in mind: Dallas and the Jazz will face off in Utah on April 11 (the Mavs’ 81st game) for the rubber match of the season series. The winner will claim the tiebreaker, which by then could be a very significant advantage to hold.
In the back half of the month, the Jazz will play consecutive road back-to-backs against Chicago and Milwaukee, then Houston and OKC. Utah then closes out the month with the tilt against the defending champions.
In short, none of these five teams have it easy down the stretch. This race is currently too close to call, but if one team can catch fire down the stretch (or if Portland can continue the wave it’s already riding) things will open up a bit. Races like this, however, are good for the league as a whole, and for the teams as well. While you’d love for the clubs to have the luxury of resting the players, I think there’s something to be said for the guys having to come together and rally as things get tighter and the pressure mounts. The Mavericks, for example, have come together these last few games, and the results have been extremely positive.
Keep an eye on the standings as we head into the homestretch. But don’t pay attention too closely, or else, as Dirk Nowitzki famously said, it’ll make ya head spin.