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Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Playoffs will be proving ground

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Forget about any further stretch-run analysis of the Dallas Mavericks or insight into the state of the team's collective head just 10 days out from the playoffs. The view is obstructed. The exercise is pointless.

The regular season is down to four meaningless games. The postseason is the only place left for this reeling team to show the world they are who they thought they were. Hopefully they know because it's getting more difficult by the game to decipher who and what these Mavericks really are.

They withdrew from any statement-making on Wednesday night before tip-off against the surprisingly fun and dangerous Denver Nuggets, who could soon -- surprise -- be back in town as the Mavs' first-round foe.

Center Tyson Chandler couldn't go for a second consecutive game with a sore and stiff lower back, and coach Rick Carlisle made the call to give point guard Jason Kidd his first night of rest against the last potential major test of the season.

Missing two starters in what was perceived by the outside world as a big game considering Dallas' now nine-game drought against Western Conference playoff teams, the Mavs averted embarrassment on their home floor. With this new collection of Nuggets beginning to pull away, 61-45, early in the third quarter after leading by 10 at halftime, the Mavs finally decided to pull up their britches and fight.

The Mavs would eventually take their first lead at 77-76 since 6-5, and it would be their last. They then quickly fell behind by nine, only to claw back again to tie it at 94-94 with 2:51 to play. But J.R. Smith and a committee of hard-working and hot-shooting Nuggets spoiled the second comeback, too, and took control with a 10-0 run for a 104-96 win.

But what to make of it? The Mavs committed 17 turnovers that Denver turned into 25 points. They continued to misfire from 3-point range, going 5-of-22 with the sharpshooters Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic tag-teaming to go 4-of-13.

Rodrigue Beaubois started at point guard and DeShawn Stevenson started at shooting guard, with neither doing much of anything. Corey Brewer finally played and made a strong impression with 13 points in 20 minutes. Brendan Haywood started and pulled down a season-high 19 rebounds.

Still, it was another loss, the fourth in a row and ninth in 17 games. It was difficult to tell how the players reacted to Kidd not playing against a red-hot Western Conference competition. Dirk Nowitzki said, "That's not my decision." Nowitzki, who has commented multiple times recently that Kidd is the one player who does need time off before the playoffs, also noted that, "J-Kidd plays 30-plus minutes every night, so that's obviously a big loss."

The absence of Kidd and Chandler offered up another mish-mash of Mavs lineups and combinations. With Carlisle saying afterward that the 38-year-old Kidd could possibly sit out two of the remaining four games, the Mavs have concluded -- surely looking back on last postseason -- that rest for their point guard is critical and rebuilding rotation cohesion before the playoffs begin is overrated.

"We hope so. We hope so," Carlisle said. "Look, we believe we're going to have enough games together to have a rhythm. But it's kind of like [J.J.] Barea. He's dating Miss Universe and he's been playing real well since he's been dating her. Well, should we go out and get Miss Universes for all the guys? I don't know. Sometimes you can't always work things like that.

"In all seriousness, I just don't know if it's ever going to be perfect. Last year we went into the playoffs on a five-game roll and all seemed well, and we struggled. The priority in my mind is to make sure the guys that need rest get the rest; the guys that have any health issues get those resolved and then we've got to focus in on who our first-round opponent is."

All wasn't as good as it seemed last season. That five-game win streak included one playoff team, Portland, and the Mavs were just 6-5 in their previous 11 games before the streak.

This team has limped about since the beginning of March when dings started shaking up the lineup.

"We'd obviously love to end the regular season on a positive note, so hopefully we get Tyson back sometime soon and just win some games," Nowitzki said. "It's possible we can slip to fourth [in the West]. We've just got to settle down and get one Friday [against the Los Angeles Clippers] and go from there."

The Mavs' next three games are against teams that are eliminated from the playoffs. By the time the Hornets come to town for Game No. 82 on April 13, it could be a case in which both teams are locked into seeds and rest their regulars.

As the standings are now, the No. 2 is lost and the Oklahoma City Thunder is suddenly one game back for the No. 3 seed. The No. 4 seed will face these Nuggets, now 16-5 and 9-1 at home since trading away Carmelo Anthony, in the first round.

"Right now with our team it's not about measuring sticks or any of that," Carlisle said. "It's about getting our health, getting our physical and mental disposition where it needs to be and then moving forward every day feeling like we made progress."

The regular season is over. Bring on the playoffs. It's all that matters.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.