SALT LAKE CITY – The Dallas Mavericks have a clear view of the finish line after wrapping up a 4-0 road trip.
The Mavs return to the American Airlines Center in pole position of the three-team race for the Western Conference’s final two playoff spots. Their magic number has been trimmed to two -– any combination of Mavs wins and/or Memphis Grizzlies losses -– and the Mavs potentially could clinch at least seventh by beating the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns before heading out on the final road trip of the regular season.
“It was a great road trip for what we’re trying to head for, and that’s 50 wins and getting to the playoffs,” Monta Ellis said after his 16-point, five-assist outing against the Jazz. “We’re right on pace. We’ve been taking it game by game. We put ourselves in this position. Everything we said was going to happen, we’re doing it and doing it as a team. It’s great.”
Not that the Mavs have any sense of significant accomplishment at this point.
Now is not the time to relax.
“Going home now again, I just hope we’re taking that same sense of urgency into our home court,” said Nowitzki, who scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting against the Jazz. “We can’t relax at home. Obviously we showed that all year. We’re not good enough to coast. We almost have to have the feeling like we’re on the road -- scramble for each other, play for each other and then good things will happen.”
The Mavs have a bit of breathing room now, up a full game on Phoenix and two games on Memphis, owning the tiebreaker against the Grizzlies and having the chance to earn it against the Suns on Saturday night. But the mantra in the Mavs’ locker room at EnergySolutions Arena was that the Mavs must keep grinding.
“We’re 79 games into this, and I can honestly say this: Our work is largely still to be done,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve got to win two more games to guarantee that we’re in the playoffs and the competition is getting tougher by the minute here.
“It’s a night to feel good about the road trip for sure, but when we get back, we’ve got to refocus on San Antonio coming in.”
The Mavs benefited from a soft schedule on the trip, facing the West’s three worst teams after opening with an upset over the Los Angeles Clippers. The schedule down the stretch isn’t nearly so kind.
The Spurs will bring the NBA’s best record with them to Dallas, although All-Star point guard Tony Parker won’t make the trip as he nurses a bad back. The Mavs face the Suns and Grizzlies –- with those two teams facing each other in Phoenix in between -– to finish up the regular season.
If Dallas’ defense on this trip is a sign of things to come, the Mavs will be playing in late April and maybe even beyond.
The Mavs’ four foes averaged only 93.8 points on this trip. The Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Jazz combined to shoot just 43.3 percent from the floor and 22.6 percent from 3-point range during Dallas’ 4-0 run.
“That’s the way it’s going to have to be,” said sixth man Vince Carter, who had 13 points against Utah. “The mentality is it’s playoff-style basketball from here on out. You get in and four days later, it’s time to go.”
The Mavs need two more wins before anything’s guaranteed, but they’ll return from a week on the road in really good shape.