Five games to get things right

DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks have lost six of 11 and two in a row. They can't stop anyone and lately they can't even hold on to the ball. Shawn Marion, the club's most dependable defender, is on the shelf for at least one game and possibly more, and only five games remain to get a grip on things before the playoffs begin.

Dirk Nowitzki listened to the lengthy list of ills and nodded his head.

"I always like having something to play for at the end and having a good rhythm going into the playoffs. For me, it's another perfect year, just like last year," Nowitzki said without smiling, winking or wiping away any dripping sarcasm from his voice. "I feel great, I have a good rhythm and I'm looking forward to the playoffs. And, teamwise, I think it should be the same. We should perform on a high level now and come together."

Now would be a good time considering the Mavs are challenging the slumping Denver Nuggets for fastest free fall to end the regular season. The No. 2 seed, not long ago seemingly in Dallas' control, is up for grabs. Even the Southwest Division crown remarkably remains in play with those sneaky San Antonio Spurs surging from behind.

"Just a little inconsistent. Other than that I'm not really worried," Nowitzki said. "If we [pick it up] more defensively we have a chance to beat anybody at home or on the road, and I think we've showed that so far. The only problem is if we're slacking defensively we can basically lose to anybody, too. So, it's a fine line and we have to be aware of that."

The final five-game run begins Wednesday at the American Airlines Center against the Memphis Grizzlies. When the Mavs saw Memphis last week, they had to save themselves from a devastating defeat with a double-digit comeback in the last half of the fourth quarter.

And before turning out the lights Saturday night at the AAC after a demoralizing loss to Oklahoma City, Nowitzki sidestepped a question asking if the team has confidence in one another, Jason Kidd questioned if the Mavs are as good as they think they are and Jason Terry, frustrated with his fourth-quarter benching, criticized the team's "plan of attack."

All in the course of a season, Kidd said coolly, even as the course is about to run out.

"The big thing is we're not panicking. We know what we have to address," Kidd said. "We're together, that's not a question. Frustration is going to be something that happens throughout a season. We can only address it and move on, do our work and get ready to come on Wednesday."

The Mavs did have the look of a relaxed team at the end of Tuesday's practice. It wrapped up two days of hard workouts emphasizing defensive execution. During this latest stretch of inexplicably uninspired play, the Mavs have allowed more than 104 points a game. They gave up a season-high 67 first-half points to the Thunder on Saturday.

At their worst, the Mavs looked to be on a repeat of the close of the 2007-08 season, when they slipped down the standings after the Kidd trade, tensions overheated, the players tuned out Avery Johnson, and they were run out of the first round of the playoffs by the New Orleans Hornets.

Coach Rick Carlisle said he believes this team is united and will show it Wednesday night.

"I really do, yeah, I really do," Carlisle said. "And look, I mean, we were all a little frustrated after that [Oklahoma City] game and that happens. You've got to take a step back and make sure you have an accurate perspective on things and then get back to work a day later, and that's what we've done. We're ready for an important stretch."

It will begin Wednesday without Marion, who suffered a strained oblique muscle on his left side Saturday. He is listed as day-to-day, but Marion was unable to practice the last two days. Depending on the severity of the strain, abdominal injuries can make a quick and seamless return difficult.

So it will be a waiting game to see if Marion can contribute Friday against new nemesis Brandon Roy and the Portland Trail Blazers, who've won all three meetings this season and are a potential first-round matchup. Dallas plays at Sacramento on Saturday and then at the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.

Dallas ends the regular season at home on April 14 against the Spurs, a game that will surely have an impact on playoff seeding and potentially much, much more.

Despite recent performances, Nowitzki said the Mavs are prepared to grind it out.

"I think we've got the weapons for it," he said. "After the trade we're more physical, we're bigger on the front line. I think we're made for playoff basketball. I really like what we've got. We've just got to let it all hang out and see what happens."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.