Last night, the Mavericks — who were actually trying, or should have been — lost to the San Antonio Spurs’ JV squad, at home. Yes, they were missing J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, in addition to Chandler Parsons, out for the rest of the season after knee surgery. And David Lee left the game early with a heel injury. But still. Not a great way to head into the playoffs.
Even if they took care of business and smoked the Spurs like a Pecan Lodge brisket, it wouldn’t have really mattered. Portland won and Memphis lost, so the Mavs were going to finish with the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder no matter what. But still. A little momentum going into Saturday’s game against the Thunder and who knows what might happen?
Well, probably not much.
Listen, I am as optimistic as anyone when it comes to the Dallas Mavericks. Probably more than anyone. I always believe, until it gets beaten out of me. And even then, I think back on the what-ifs and if-onlys. I am not well. In many ways, but especially this one. I have the same foolish self belief and irrational confidence in my team that leads to conquistadors disappearing in Amazonian jungles looking for lost cities of gold. I will continually try to challenge life’s shots at the rim no matter how many times it dunks on me. You should not do this. I’m not saying be cynical, but don’t be a dummy. I went through that so you don’t have to go through that.
Even I, who gets heartbroken at every obvious scam and see-through lie, don’t really think the Mavs have a chance to make it out of the first round. Maybe they steal a game. Maybe they take two. Probably not, but maybe. Three is like catching a bullet between your teeth. Four is riding a flaming chariot that is streaking across the sky behind a Pegasus. Dope as hell but in the realm of little baby thoughts.
THAT SAID, if it were to happen, it won’t but if it were, it would be because of these things:
• Rick Carlisle is Some Sort of Master of the Dark Arts. The Mavs, by almost every account, were not supposed to make the playoffs. In fact, before the season, again by almost every account, it was said they would be one of the worst, if not the worst, teams in the NBA. And then, instead, the season went pretty much like every post-championship season: an odds and sods roster anchored by Dirk Nowitzki overachieves and refuses to let the franchise bottom out.
But then, late in the season, the Mavs went into a tailspin, exacerbated by Parsons’ exit and a Dirk Nowitzki cold spell, and Carlisle did something very few coaches can do: he remade the team’s entire identity on the fly, turning it into a chopped and screwed version of itself, the pace slowed way down. They won with defense. Gregg Popovich could have done that, but I can’t think of another coach who could. Until last night, the Mavs won six of seven in that style.
They haven’t beaten OKC this year, but OKC also hasn’t seen this version of the team. So who knows. Maybe it works. I do know that Carlisle will be facing a rookie NBA coach, Billy Donovan, who hasn’t really put his stamp on the team, unless you count Not Being Scott Brooks as a stamp. If we are talking chess matches — and it’s the playoffs, and no one has come up with a better cliche yet, so we are — Carlisle gives the Mavs a big edge.
• J.J. Barea Can Play and play the Way He did in April. Forget the last four games of the season. Barea hurt his groin against Memphis, didn’t play last night or in L.A., and was game but ineffective against Utah. If he can heal up enough to regain the form he had before that, when he won Western Conference Player of the Month (!) and averaged over 17 points on lights-out shooting, then the Mavs have a puncher’s chance.
Much like the NCAA Tournament, you can ride a hot hand in the playoffs. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, the hot hand you are riding can eventually be chilled out by a smart coach with the right game plan. Also: in the same way that Shaquille O’Neal loved sonning Shawn Bradley, Russell Westbrook seems to delight in playing Barea. I don’t know what it is, but Westbrook can’t stand Barea and loves showing him up. So having Barea be a focal point might backfire. But maybe it won’t.
• Justin Anderson and Wesley Matthews Can Somehow Shut Down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Even For a Quarter, Even if It’s just one of them. This is really unlikely. Wes Matthews has been up for it all season, but his body only has for maybe a quarter of it. Next season he’ll probably be better, with more time to heal from his achilles injury. But it’s not next season yet.
And while Justin Anderson has been a shiny bright spot for the team since being inserted into the lineup, it’s his first trip to the playoffs and he has only recently really been playing significant minutes. I think he should have played more earlier, but I don’t have a time machine to go back and show the generally rookie-averse Carlisle what Anderson’s been up to, and if I did have a time machine, I wouldn’t do that. I’d play a longer game, slowly and carefully using my future knowledge to acquire enough capital to buy the Mavericks and just tell Carlisle to stop screwing around and play Anderson, already.
Anyway, no one else on the team is even a little bit up to the challenge defensively, at least manning up on one of these in-their-prime stars, so Anderson and Matthews have to be the guys to make a stand.
• Dirk. This is simple. Even at 37, almost 38, The Big German is the Mavs’ biggest hope. If he conjures up some vintage one-legged fadeaways and deep-bend threes, and he has at various points this season, then they have a chance. He is the heart of the squad in every possible way. If he gets on a run and turns into Jimmy Connors at the 1991 U.S. Open and the AAC is going crazy and he starts trending on Twitter, then they have a chance.
But it’s probably asking too much of Dirk. He’s beat. Last year, when the playoffs rolled around, he just didn’t have it in him, and it’s really hard to blame him. He doesn’t owe anyone anything. But the Warriors won 73 games and Kobe Bryant scored 60 (on 50 shots, God bless) so this season is already crazy. Maybe it could get crazier.
Like I said, it probably won’t. But it would be something if it did.