The abbreviated All-Star break will end on Tuesday when teams return to practice and prepare for Wednesday’s start to the second half of the season.
The Mavericks should have one goal – and one goal only – when they open up what surely (hopefully?) will be a less-problematic second half of the season.
And it’s not just to make the playoffs.
It should be to avoid the seventh or eighth seed and, by extension, avoiding the play-in games with the ninth and 10th-seeded teams.
Making a run to the top six in the Western Conference is not a farfetched goal. The Mavericks will start the second half of the season in eighth place in the West, two games ahead of ninth-place Golden State in the loss column. And two games behind seventh-place San Antonio in the loss column.
Paying close attention to the loss column in the standings is particularly important this season because teams have played such a radically different number of games. The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, have played 38 games. The Spurs have played just 32.
Memphis, currently 10th in the West, also has played only 32 games, which affords them more opportunity to improve on their 16-16 record than, say, 19-18 Golden State.
And, by the way, as the standings are right now, the Mavericks would open the playoffs in a play-in scenario against Steph Curry and Golden State.
The Warriors would have to win two games, the Mavericks would have to win once to reach the first round against the No. 1-seeded team, presently Utah.
That’s not a playoff path anybody with a sense of self-preservation would want to take.
Fortunately, the playoffs do not start today.
The good news is that the Mavericks are only one game in the loss column behind sixth-place Denver and two games behind the fourth-place Clippers.
And, in spite of how the regular season has gone, don’t disregard the importance of a home-court advantage in the playoffs.
By then, teams likely will have more fans in their stands and the momentum-swaying aspects of a more normal game experience will be back. At least that’s what we all hope.
So the home court could be a real advantage come playoff time.
But the first order of business is to get there. And preferably without the hassle of having to win a playoff game (or, even less attractively, games) in a play-in situation.
There’s reason to believe the Mavericks can avoid the play-in, mainly because of the way they closed out the first half of the season with nine wins in the last 11 games.
“It was kind of a tough stretch right there where we lost five or six in a row,” said Luka Dončić during the All-Star Game festivities. “We played really bad. But I think the last couple games we picked up and I think we’re going up and up and just learning from the moment when it was tough.”
One of the main reasons the Mavericks would seem to have a fighting shot at climbing in the standings is that their strength of schedule the rest of the way is among the easiest in the league.
Of course, that doesn’t make the first two weeks of the second half any easier. Six of their first seven games out of the break are against playoff-bound teams.
But mostly, the Mavericks’ biggest asset moving ahead is that they feel like their run of tough luck has run its course. The COVID-19 problems that precipitated the losing streak in late January gave way to solid health and a solid won-loss stretch before the break.
Now, it’s time to build on that. As coach Rick Carlisle said before the break, the Mavericks have done some good things to get them back to a position where they now can make headway without having to string together a long winning streak.
Of course, Carlisle also has said that the second half of the season no doubt will bring surprises, just as the first half did.
Navigating those unexpected turns will determine a lot about the Mavericks’ future.
But at the least, they have plenty of experience doing so.