Dirk Nowitzki danced. Well, maybe it was just a shimmy. The Mavericks have put together a plethora of videos over the years that can attest to Nowitzki’s talents as a dancer. But in Wednesday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, Dirk Nowitzki was having a good enough time to physically express his improved mood. The moment was lost a bit as Houston fought back in the fourth quarter, but combine Nowitzki’s exhuberance with the best defense played in Sacramento video and the difference in the Dallas Mavericks is palpable. Only a week ago, Mark Cuban was having to make declarations that Dirk Nowitzki would not be traded. Suddenly, the Mavericks are a team with enthusiasm and a restored faith in their abilities.
Ian Levy already knocked out an excellent piece about the finer points of the Mavs’ improved play as shown through the numbers. While there are always ways to cut deeper into the marrow of what has changed, sometimes a loose interpretation of occam’s razor cuts true: when a team has only one all-star player, the return of that player to health and to the starting line-up will improve the play of all. Levy declines to pin the Mavericks improvement solely on the return of the giant German, but not everyone agrees. Eric Spoelestra, coach of the reigning champion Miami Heat, declared upon their first game versus a returned Nowitzki that he had already seen ‘the Dirk Nowitzki Effect’ and how it makes the Mavericks offense more difficult to defend even when the play doesn’t involve Nowitzki.
It may be somewhat of a chicken/egg scenario when trying to determine if the return of the Mavs’ starting PF to health started the Mavericks winning again or whether winning renewed Dirk’s confidence. Regardless, the effect has been team wide. Finally closing out an overtime game against Sacramento earlier in the week, getting a blowout win against a tired (but good) Memphis squad, and defeating two of the four teams ahead of them for the 8th spot in the West — this is the kind of stretch that could stem the tide of a losing atmosphere. Early in the season, Elton Brand was talking about not getting enough minutes and finding his place on the team in post-game interviews. Now he’s getting asked about game-changing blocks and stringing together 3 consecutive double-digit scoring games. It’s definitely a sea of change.
For a team that is not satisfied with merely competing for an 8th seed, a four-game winning streak to better themselves to five games below .500 isn’t that much of a help. But if the goal is to actually make a splash in the playoffs, then actually making the cut is undeniably the first step. Currently, four teams stand in the way of the Mavericks getting that 8th seed: the Houston Rockets, the L.A. Lakers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Utah Jazz currently hold the 7th spot in the West with the same record as Houston. The Mavericks are four games back of Houston and Utah, but some revived enthusiasm in Dallas deserves a glance at how successful those teams might be in keeping the Mavericks from passing them in the playoff race.
Minnesota holds the 11th best record in the West, one full game ahead of the Mavericks in the standings. Minnesota, however, has lost five straight games and has an injury list long enough to play a full pickup game. Second-year phenom Ricky Rubio hasn’t returned to form yet after last season’s knee injury, star player Kevin Love recently re-fractured a bone his hand and will miss 6-8 weeks, Brandon Roy’s knees did not agree to leave retirement, Chase Budinger tore his MCL, former Maverick Josh Howard is out for the season with knee issues after finding a home in Minnesota, and Malcolm Lee is also out for the season with injury. In Thursday night’s game against the Clippers, Nikola Pekovic left in third quarter with bruised quadricep before Alexey Shved joined him in the locker room in the fourth due to a sprained ankle. Obviously, it will be difficult for Minnesota to consistently win games with such a depleted roster. Dallas already made up a game on them earlier in the week and could pass Minnesota in the standings by Monday morning if they can keep their win streak alive (and Minnesota helps by losing).
Earlier in the week during ESPN’s halftime show, Bill Simmons commented to former Laker Magic Johnson that their then two-game winning streak might be indicative of a turnaround; that it might just be too early to count them out altogether. Luckily for the Mavericks, Los Angeles fell short Thursday night versus the Miami Heat. Like Minnesota, the Los Angeles roster has been beset by injury this season. Steve Nash has only recently returned after missing the first third of the season with a broken leg, Pau Gasol has missed numerous games from knee tendinitis only to return and have to miss more games from concussion symptoms after taking an elbow to the head. Jordan Hill was recently lost for the season shortening their bench and Dwight Howard is recovering from offseason back surgery. Unlike the Timberwolves, though, the Lakers are now as healthy as they’ve been all season. It remains to be seen if they can fully utilize Howard and Gasol together in a league that is seeing more teams trending toward smaller, faster lineups. Rumors of Howard and Kobe Bryant almost coming to blows in the locker room and questions of whether Gasol can be made to fit in new Lakers coach Mike Dantoni’s offense make it possible that this roster, while seemingly superior on paper, may not stop the Mavericks from getting back into playoff contention.
Most of the talk this season about the Portland Trailblazers has revolved around their Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard. The Blazers have managed to win some close games against quality teams, including the defending champs. But Dallas area native LaMarcus Aldridge has had nagging injuries all season and the team walks a fine line: make the playoffs and lose their lottery chance when they’re not good enough to win it all, else start to lose more games and ensure a shot at a quality draft choice. There should be some expectation that Lillard will hit the rookie wall sometime later in the season, with the minutes played jump from NCAA ball to the NBA being such a significant leap. Plus, all the Blazers starters are playing heavy minutes as a counter for their lack of depth, as evidenced by an observation from Joe Freeman of The Oregonian that Portland has three of the NBA’s top 11 in terms of minutes played per game. If either fatigue or injury catches up with Portland, the Mavericks may be able to pass them by.
Wednesday night’s game against Houston brought the Rockets losing streak to five games and brought Dallas to within four games of the 7th and 8th seeds. During the course of the game, ESPN commentators Mike Breen and Hubie Brown commented on James Harden ‘hitting the wall.’ Harden’s workload has definitely increased with his move from the third option in Oklahoma City to the first option in Houston. Though he finished the game with 20 points, Harden had to work for every bit of it, shooting 5-23 in the game. For the whole season, Harden has been the motor for the Rockets, leading the team in minutes per game, points per game, and registering only a single notch behind Lin in assists per game. If he does wear down from carrying a heavier load, it could be enough to swing the team’s fortune in a direction favorable to the Mavericks. Noting that Harden came off the bench for most of his games in OKC, the Rockets starting lineup is comprised of players who either haven’t been starters in the past or have only played in a limited number of games in that capacity. Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Patrick Patterson, and Jeremy Lin aren’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of their opponents like the names on the Lakers roster and they simply aren’t a proven commodity for success over a long season.
Of course, Dallas could catch Minnesota’s injury bug and that 8th seed could return to being a distant dream. To start: it seems unlikely that the Oklahoma City Thunder will rollover to assist the Mavericks in their playoff hunt on Friday evening. Still, if only for a moment, it’s good to see the Mavericks hold their heads up for a few games in a row and good to see them enjoy themselves on the court — to have moments where basketball isn’t only a job. It felt like the whole squad was drowning earlier in the season; hopefully they’re not just coming up for a quick respite, but will be able to stay above water and make a splash in the playoffs.
Shay Christian Vance is a member of the Two Man Game family. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.