For the first time in a long time - at least away from American Airlines Center - the Dallas Mavericks played like a team that wanted in the NBA Playoffs. And wanted to avoid a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their reward: With only 18 games remaining in the regular season, the Mavs are closer to 2nd place in the Western Conference than 9th.
Mavs 122, Suns 117 not only all but clinched a playoff spot in the rugged West, it sent a rabid reminder that when Dallas is good, it can be really, really good.
How did the Mavs beat a Western Conference team on the road for the first time in 2009?
J.J. Barea matched Steve Nash early. Ryan Hollins - who I've said all along needs more playing time - was active and productive despite a bloody nose courtesy of a Shaq elbow. Dirk displayed his emotional, effective side, abusing smaller defenders on countless isolations along the free-throw line to the tune of 34 points and 13 rebounds. And Jason Kidd hit consecutive killer 3-pointers down the stretch when the Suns aggressively double-teamed Nowitzki.
Said coach Rick Carlisle, "Hey, we're trying to move up, not just hang in this thing."
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Beginning with tonight's game in Portland, the Mavs need to go only 11-7 in their final 18 to clinch their ninth consecutive 50-win, playoff season. Good.
But good enough?
With a five-game lead on the Suns - including a 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker edge with an April 5 matchup at AAC remaining - a 9-9 finish by the Mavs would force Phoenix to go 14-4 down the stretch. The Mavs trail the second-place Spurs by only 4 1/2 games.