Mavs' plan is to survive and thrive

DALLAS -- There's nothing normal about this NBA regular season. The schedule is a 66-game sprint over four months.

"We don't want to complain too much about it," Dirk Nowitzki said, "but it is what it is."

It is a survival quest. That's especially true for the league's oldest team, the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.

Ugly is going to happen.

Be warned: Ugly might happen this weekend at the American Airlines Center, even though the visiting Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings are likely headed for the lottery again. The Mavs are on the back end of a four-games-in-five-nights run. Their last such scheduling stretch ended with a splat against the Spurs in San Antonio.

The Mavs have rebounded with three straight victories since that blowout loss -- despite old man Jason Kidd resting his sore lower back -- but their win total doesn't really matter as long as it ranks among the top eight in the Western Conference.

It sounds good when the Mavs talk about maintaining a sense of urgency, and for the most part they mean it. But this team's primary goal is to peak in the playoffs again, a plan that doesn't necessarily jibe with putting the best possible product on the floor every night.

The fight for the West's first seed -- or even home-court advantage in the first round for a team that had the NBA's best road record the past two seasons -- isn't nearly as important for the Mavs as having fresh legs when their mission to repeat really begins in late April.

That's nothing new for the Mavs, but it has intensified because of the crazy cash grab of a schedule. The Mavs had a similar mindset last season, when coach Rick Carlisle opted to rest Kidd for a couple of games in the last week of the regular season, even though the Mavs were coming off a miserable West Coast road trip that ended with three consecutive losses. That trip ended with four games in five nights, which is normally a scheduling rarity but relatively routine in this lockout-shortened season.

Funny how a championship parade makes those potholes so forgettable, huh?

"There's going to be a lot of them like that this year," Shawn Marion said. "That's just the way it is. It's going to be a lot harder, and some nights it's just not going to go in for you. You can be trying and sometimes the legs just aren't going to let it happen.

"You can't have a lot of them, though. You can have a few of 'em here or there, but you've got to make sure you have more W's than losses."

Nowitzki calls the Mavs' schedule in January "a beast," but he says it gets better as it goes. That makes you wonder if the face of the franchise has seen the Mavs' schedule coming out of the All-Star break.

Good luck playing pretty basketball throughout a seven-city, nine-game, 12-night odyssey. The Mavs play four games in five nights out of the break, get a day to catch their breath and follow that with five games in six nights, including their only three-in-three stretch.

Winning enough games to get in the playoffs won't be an issue for a franchise whose streak of 11 straight 50-win seasons is sure to end. The challenge for a team fitting in some significant new pieces -- or, in the case of Lamar Odom, a supposedly significant new piece -- is getting better as it goes.

Rest is a priority over practice when days off are so rare. Some of the best tinkering time will come in the later stages of lopsided games.

"Since we don't have much time to practice," Nowitzki said, "I guess we have to do it in games."

Managing minutes might be the most important task for Carlisle this season. That's why he'll typically play 10 or more men in each game.

Dallas is deep enough that the workload worries really only apply to their two future Hall of Fame starters, although the 33-year-old Nowitzki insists that those concerns only apply to Kidd. You can count on Kidd, who might not be ready to return from his sore back this weekend, to be a healthy scratch at least a few times.

That's all part of the Mavs' plan: Survive the not-so-regular season and thrive in the playoffs.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.