- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- Any discussion about the Dallas Mavericks as a playoff team is premature.
At least it is if it’s in the presence of the men who just want to keep their heads down and continue digging their way out of the massive hole they created in the first half of the season.
The Mavs got a huge shovel full of dirt with Tuesday’s come-from-behind, 109-102 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers. That makes nine wins in the last 12 games for Dallas, and this one over a legitimate contender was the kind that might make you believe that the Mavs really can make the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year.
How ridiculous would that thought have seemed the last time the Mavs faced the Clippers? That was Jan. 9, when a loss in the Staples Center dropped Dallas to 13-23, a dozen-year low of 10 games under .500.
Fast forward to the present: There’s still much work to do, but the playoffs are a distinct possibility for the bushy-bearded Mavs, who at 35-36 are one win away from shaving and one game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the West’s last playoff spot.
The Mavs aren’t about to puff out their chests and pump up their playoff hopes. They just want to keep on rolling and see where they stand at the end of the regular season.
“We started so far behind the 8 ball that we need a heck of a finish here,” Dirk Nowitzki said after dropping a season-high 33 points on the Clippers, who he single-handedly outscored by an 8-5 margin in overtime. “But we’ve been playing well. We’ve been playing our best basketball of the season, so it’s a good time for that.
“We’re just going to let it rip and try to win the next game and not get carried away and look ahead and not get happy with the wins. Keep grinding and see if we can make a serious push down the stretch.”
This was a win worth smiling about for at least a few minutes.
It was just the second time all season the Mavs managed to beat one of the West’s top five teams. It was only their second overtime win in 10 tries. It was tangible reason to believe that the Mavs’ recent success wasn’t just fool’s gold.
The Mavs overcame an amazing performance by Chris Paul, who scored 10 of his 33 points in the final 4:13 of regulation, including what could have been the game-winning bucket with 5.9 seconds remaining. But O.J. Mayo answered with an amazing drive and lefty finish of his own with less than a tick on the clock, forcing the game into overtime.
At that point, a Dallas team that has crumbled in the clutch so many times this season played with poise and toughness reminiscent of the title run made two years ago by an almost totally different roster.
Oh, Dirk was the good, ol’ Dirk, getting two buckets off post-ups early in the OT to give the Mavs a lead that they never let go. It was Dallas’ defense, though, that made the difference.
They trapped Paul as often as possible, forcing the ball out of his hands and keeping him scoreless after a jumper on the Clippers’ first possession of the extra period. L.A. missed seven straight shots at one point against the scrambling Dallas D.
As coach Rick Carlisle said, this win represented the way the Mavs need to play if they want to be playing in late April. And the Mavs have got to keep this kind of effort coming, especially with their next four games against playoff-bound foes.
“I’m not big on signature wins with 11 to go in the season,” Carlisle said. “This is one of many more wins we’ve got to get. This game was about grit and guts more so than X’s and O’s. As Chuck Daly once said, in games like this, wipe everything off the board. It’s all about attitude. This is one of those games, and our guys hung in.”
The Mavs hung in while Nowitzki missed the first 27 games while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. They hung in after things got worse once their lone star returned and struggled, a testament to the professionalism, pride and persistence of a team loaded with dudes whose Dallas stints could be one-and-done.
The odds are still against the Mavs -- although they’ve improved massively this month -- but you can guarantee that they won’t go down easily.
“We’re fighters,” Mayo said. “We’re going to keep coming. We’re going to keep coming until I guess they say the fat lady sings. We’re going to keep coming, keep trying to get better, keep trying to win ballgames and give ourselves a shot.”
Added Nowitzki: “It’s a good time to play your best basketball, so we’ll see how far we can take it.”
They’ve come far enough to get the razors ready and have legitimate hope that removing the beards won’t be the high point of the season. They’ve still got a long way to go to feel any sense of satisfaction.
1dMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
2dMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information