The Mavericks Express keeps rumbling along, complete with loud, ominous noises that this is a locomotive that will be hard to stop come playoff time.
They took another step toward guaranteeing themselves a postseason spot and avoiding the play-in tournament with a taking-care-of-business 124-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
The win moves the Mavericks to 40-28 with four games remaining. They need any combination of two wins or two losses by the Los Angeles Lakers to clinch no worse than the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. The ailing Lakers beat Phoenix late Sunday to keep the Mavericks’ magic number at two.
They have won four in a row and 10 of their last 12, making them the hottest team in the league over that stretch.
The Mavericks kept on rolling even without Luka Dončić, who got some much-deserved rest in the second half, although not the way he or the Mavericks would prefer.
Dončić was called for a flagrant foul-2 for striking Cleveland guard Collin Sexton in the groin area less than two minutes into the third quarter. The play originally was only called a foul, but a lengthy review ended with the upgraded flagrant. The video clearly showed the hit below the belt.
“I don’t know. After I saw the video, I knew I hit him,” Dončić said. “But it wasn’t nothing on purpose. That kind of stuff happens a lot in the games. That’s my explanation. It obviously wasn’t on purpose. Just two guys fighting for a rebound.”
Asked what was happening while the nearly five-minute review was taking place, Dončić said he thought it was to check on if the foul he committed came before the shot-clock buzzer.
“That’s what I thought they were looking at,” he said. “I was really surprised when they called a flagrant-two.”
The Mavericks were ahead 68-57 when it happened. Enter Jalen Brunson, who adroitly directed the Mavericks the rest of the way.
The good news is that flagrant fouls are different than technical fouls. Dončić is treading on thin ice with 15 technical fouls this season. His next one will result in a one-game suspension.
Coach Rick Carlisle had hinted a couple weeks back that the Mavericks could time it right if they had too in order to get their superstar point guard some rest during the stretch drive.
To that point, Dončić played less than 22 minutes on Sunday. He finished with 20 points. And with back-to-back games coming up Tuesday at Memphis and Wednesday at home against New Orleans, a half-shift of work won’t hurt at all in the long term.
And the relative ease with which the Mavericks dispatched Cleveland for the second time in three nights made the night all the more enjoyable.
It’s clear that the Mavericks are playing as well as they have all season just as the playoffs are looming. After Dončić went out on Sunday, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson took over and made sure the Mavericks didn’t miss a beat.
Brunson hit all five of his shots and had 13 points and seven assists. He also had a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter and another one to open the fourth.
Hardaway had 25 points as he continued his late-season scoring binge.
“A great win,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I thought it was our best ball movement in quite awhile. We’ve been moving it OK, but tonight we moved it at an exceptionally high level, which was great.
“Hardaway was great. Dwight Powell was great. He tied a career high in blocks (four) and got the defensive belt. Powell just gave us great energy all night long and was a real key to the game.”
As for Luka’s ejection, Carlisle said: “Brunson came in and really did a great job running the team. I didn’t see it (the flagrant foul) closely enough. (It was) unfortunate, but it sparked our guys and we did a good job of closing the game out.”
The Mavericks improved to 20-9 against the Eastern Conference, with a home game left against Toronto to complete their schedule against the East.
The Mavericks never trailed on Sunday. Even without Maxi Kleber (Achilles soreness) and Kristaps Porzingis (knee soreness) the Mavericks were in cruise control most of the night. They led 39-30 after the first quarter and never looked back.
They remain in control of their destiny in that they will finish fifth in the Western Conference if they win their remaining four games – at Memphis, New Orleans, Toronto and at Minnesota.
Even if they don’t, the main focus is on staying ahead of the Lakers. Teams that finish seventh through 10th in each conference will have to survive the play-in tournament that decides the seventh and eighth seeds for the actual playoffs.