Mavericks' win streak will be tested
Defending champs playing their best ball, but upcoming schedule is challenging
Winning streaks, losing skids, blowouts, blown leads and bone-tired bodies come and go in this lockout-shortened season as quickly as the Dallas Mavericks' alter personalities.
So the Western Conference standings you see today might not be the playoff seedings you get some five weeks from now, no matter how juicy today's pairing might be.
Tonight is Game No. 48 of 66 for the Mavs (27-20) in this dress rehearsal run-up to the real season -- as Jason Kidd has come to describe the march toward the playoffs -- features Kobe Bryant and the semi-new-look Los Angeles Lakers (28-17) in town with the current standings hinting at a best-of-seven first-round matchup for the contenders and the champs, teams whose labels are typically the other way around.
A semifinal matchup last season that took 23 years to materialize and ended in a stunning Mavs' sweep is now on track for a sudden rematch.
Just a week ago, this third of four regular-season matchups would have looked like a mismatch favoring L.A. But coming out of their worst funk of the season, a 2-7 record during a stretch of nine games in 12 nights, the Mavs have won four in a row with their most focused and inspired offensive performances of the season.
Regardless of injuries to key players, Dallas' offense has averaged 106.5 points during its third-longest win streak of the season, which comes on the heels of the height of its dysfunction.
Perhaps in this odd season in which reading too deeply into stats or relying on logic can be misleading, it makes sense that the Mavs have looked their sharpest under pressure and against the best competition, while scraping bottom against the worst.
"When you're in a slump, you feel like you'll never win again and everything is going against you," Dirk Nowitzki said. "When you're playing well, you have to milk it. Right now, even with [Delonte West] and [Brendan Haywood] and [Shawn Marion] out, we still have good rotation and the guys are really playing well."
These past two victories, against San Antonio and Denver, started a 10-game stretch against teams occupying playoff spots. The preceding nine-game stretch out of the All-Star break offered seven teams out of the playoff mix, and the Mavs lost to five. In the nine games leading up to the All-Star break, Dallas won six against winning clubs.
"We've hit a strong stretch here," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "There's no time to exhale during this stretch. The way this season is, you can't get too high or too low. You have to be on an even keel and you have to keep preaching your strengths."
Which, leading up to the All-Star break, was a top-five defense in points allowed and field-goal percentage. Since, the Mavs have experienced some slippage that dropped them from No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense to No. 6.
But some slippage is passable, perhaps even plausible, when paired with an offense that flows and puts the ball in the basket without disturbingly long scoring droughts. Contributions on this win streak have been numerous, from Brandan Wright's return from a concussion to score 15 points at Denver to Rodrigue Beaubois' confidence-instilling performances to Vince Carter seemingly continuously fighting off Father Time, bro.
The formula of late has followed championship form: Jason Kidd creating with few turnovers and knocking down the must-have 3-point shot, multiple scorers stepping up on different nights and all surrounding the lead horse in Nowitzki. He is averaging 28.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the past four wins, and had six assists in the first half against the Nuggets alone.
"They were doubling the post, so we passed it out, made shots," Nowitzki said. "It's a fun way to play. Everybody touches it and that's how we were successful as a team."
In the past four games, Nowitzki has 18 assists. He had 16 in the previous 13 games.
"That's a testament to his willingness to win and that's what it's all about right now, him making the right play," Carter said. "And we're making plays for him to make things easier for him and each other."
Who knows if this current brand of basketball is gearing up for a charge down the stretch run or if it's just another blip in a season full of them?
The challenges will be stiff and swift with the Lakers up next, another battle with the Spurs on Friday and then the first of two starting Saturday against a season-long overachieving Houston Rockets team that is desperately clinging to the final playoff spot.
"The game is going to get harder and harder," Carlisle said. "We've got our work cut out."