'Tough season': Stakes high for Mavs, Lakers

A preseason guarantee that the Dallas Mavericks would be only a game and a half behind the Los Angeles Lakers when they left for this late-season trip to L.A. would have certainly pleased Dirk Nowitzki.

The Mavs’ superstar just didn’t imagine that scenario would play out like this.

“I was hoping it would be for a number two or three seed, not for nine,” Nowitzki said with a sheepish grin. “Yeah, it’s been, I guess, a tough season for both teams.”

That’s an understatement. As Nowitzki noted, the Lakers’ cluster of stars (Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol), have all dealt with significant injuries this season, with Kobe currently bothered by a bone spur in his foot and Nash doubtful to play against Dallas due to hamstring and hip issues. It’s also been a season-long soap opera in L.A., with the Kobe-Dwight dynamic as the main storyline with subplots such as firing the head coach after five games and snubbing the brother-in-law with 11 championship rings.

For the Mavs, it’s been more like a long series of Survivor, except the guys who get voted off the island keep getting replaced. Dallas has used 22 players – remember Eddy Curry playing a significant role in the season-opening win over the Lakers?! – and 22 starting lineups.

Oh, and Nowitzki missed three times as many games as he did in any of the previous 14 seasons of his Hall of Fame career and struggled mightily upon his return, the primary reason the Mavs are in the position of “trying to be the greatest comeback since Lazarus,” as coach Rick Carlisle says. (Or at least since the 1996-97 Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns, the last two teams to make the playoffs after digging out of a 10-games-under-.500 hole.)

Call them excuses if you want, but there are legitimate reasons that two of the league’s proudest franchises have been reduced to fighting with the Utah Jazz for the West’s final playoff spot. Not that the rest of the NBA feels any sympathy for teams that have combined to win three of the last four titles.

The playoffs will go on without at least one of these teams. Maybe both.

If the Lakers miss the playoffs, they’d go down as one of the biggest disappointments in pro sports history. It’d be stunning to see such a star-studded roster flop for a franchise that has failed to qualify for the playoffs only twice since 1976, winning 10 titles in that span.

If the Mavs miss the playoffs, the league’s second longest postseason streak would be snapped at a dozen seasons. It’d mean the Mavs went from a championship parade to a lottery pick in a span of only two years.

Those would be miserable fates for two franchises that frankly have grown so accustomed to qualifying for the postseason that it feels more like a prerequisite than an accomplishment.

The ruthless competitors who serve as faces of their respective franchises aren’t going to go down without a fight. That makes Tuesday night’s matchups must-watch TV, must like their nationally televised duel the last time these teams met, when Kobe’s “Amnesty THAT” performance one-upped Dirk’s 30-point, 13-rebound outing.

“Hey, both [teams] have a lot of pride, a lot of fight in them,” said Nowitzki, who has led the Mavs to a 23-14 record since the season’s low point, including an 11-5 March. “It should be a fun matchup [Tuesday] night. It’s national TV. Staples Center. Jack Nicholson courtside. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Well, it’s been better. But it doesn’t get much more pressure packed.

The eighth-place Utah Jazz own the tiebreaker over both the Mavs and Lakers, so the loser of Tuesday night’s late TNT game is in huge trouble. That’s especially true if it’s the Mavs, who would need the Lakers and Jazz to choke down the stretch to have a chance.

“We’ve had must-win games since January,” coach Rick Carlisle said, “so this is nothing new for us.”

Missing the playoffs would be something new. The Mavs – and the Lakers, for that matter – are fighting to keep their flames from being extinguished.