On Thursday, April will be upon us and all foolish jokes aside, things are about to get serious for the Mavericks.
They are three games into a stretch of seven outings, all against teams .500 or worse with the exception of 24-22 New York on Friday.
So far they are 1-2.
Every game is taking on more importance. Losses usually mean a drop in the standings. Wins are like pure gold in playoff positioning.
On Saturday, they lost in New Orleans without Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis. They now are 1-4 when Dončić is sidelined, 7-9 when Porzingis is out and 0-3 when they both are missing.
With the Mavericks clearly intent on making sure they are as healthy as possible come playoff time, more games without their two best players are likely.
“You’re talking about two focal points, so it’s very difficult,” said Jalen Brunson. “But obviously, we need their health long-term. We just have to find ways to win. We know what we can do. We know what we’re capable of.”
All that is true. But the rest of this trip (Oklahoma City on Monday, Boston, New York and Washington) is absolutely vital if the Mavericks hope to seriously contend for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference or higher.
That’s the magic spot where they could avoid those dangerous play-in games between the seventh through 10th seeds.
The strategy management is taking with Luka and KP is commendable. Good teams don’t worry about a regular-season hiccup when they know they have bigger fish to fry down the road.
The problem is the Mavericks have to get to the playoffs first.
With that in mind, here’s three burning questions that need answering over the final 28 games of the regular season.
- Can they show up on time? After Saturday, that’s 10 games in a row in which they’ve trailed after the first quarter. When you consider that, they’re probably lucky to be 5-5 in that span. We’ve lost count of how many times coach Rick Carlisle has talked about this being a first-quarter league as much as it is a fourth-quarter league. He’s right. And the more times the Mavericks put themselves in a situation of playing catch-up, the more times they’re going to pay the price. The Mavericks are 16-2 when they lead after a quarter and 7-19 when they are tied or behind. That stat alone should be enough to spark a sharper focus at the jump ball.
- Will they keep putting the D in Dallas? While rebounding hasn’t been a big problem lately, stopping people continues to be a very iffy proposition. Sometimes, the Mavericks show signs of being very stout. Many other games, they simply don’t put in the elbow grease to make scoring difficult for the opponent. They’ve been sitting in the mid-20s in the league in defensive efficiency for about two months now. It’s not getting any worse. But it’s not getting any better, either, which it must if they are going to be taken seriously come playoff time. Look no further than the loss in New Orleans, when the Pelicans (admittedly a solid offensive unit) made more than 51 percent of their shots, including 50 percent in the fourth quarter, when defenses are supposed to stiffen. That won’t get it done.
- How about a little health? The Mavericks need more shooting and more time to gain continuity. As Donnie Nelson said after the trade deadline, they still want to find out exactly what they have with this team. It’s hard to do when so many rotation pieces are going in and out of the picture. Resting players to ensure optimum health for the playoffs is nice. But with J.J. Redick, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dončić all nursing injuries or, in Cauley-Stein’s case, COVID-19 safety protocols, it’s not easy to get a read on this team or a decent rhythm. After going through the January from hell with the COVID-19 problems, the Mavericks probably deserve a run of good fortune in the health department. Unfortunately in the NBA, there are no “deserve” rules.