The Dallas Mavericks are looking sharp as they march toward the playoffs and are giving fans a glimpse of what this team will look like once they get there.

Dallas came out of All-Star weekend with a renewed focus that sees the team knowing their fate is in their hands. As it stands, the Mavs sit in 7th place in the Western Conference basically as far away from falling out of the playoffs as they are from moving into first place (9.5 games ahead of 9th and 10 games out of 1st).

With this knowledge, Coach Carlisle talked to his squad for the first time all season about the standings and what the goal is for the final 23 games of the season: get locked in and be the best team you can be going into the playoffs.

This means the team’s overall focus, on and off the court, are tightening everything up to face the toughest challenge this young team has seen: NBA playoff basketball.

Plans Within Plans

Off the court, the coaching staff is focusing more on the health and wellbeing of their athletes and taking the cautionary approach to the long-term health of their players. This thought is why you see KP and Luka sitting against the 13 win Hawks last weekend. It is a reasonably winnable game, even shorthanded. Even with them taking a loss there, it’s worth keeping their top talent in working order as 1 loss won’t break them in the standings.

Speaking of standings, having a cushion of 9.5 games over the 9th place Trailblazers allows the team to be reasonably loose with their minutes and even player availability. With only 23 games remaining, the staff can build in rest days and err on the side of caution with their players, but it also means that when push comes to shove the team can make some decisions to influence their playoff matchup.

As it sits now*, the Mavs would play the Denver Nuggets who they’ve beaten once and lost to once with two more games to play. And in those 2 games, the score was won on either side by 3 points or less. The Mavs probably feel like they match up well with them, but if they moved to 6th, they’d match up with the Clippers where they are 0-2.

Clearly, this is a less ideal matchup for them and the Mavs might seek to AVOID matching up with the Clippers even if that means having to fall to 8th to do it. In that case, the Mavs would match up with the Lakers who they’ve split the series 1-3 with a controversial loss in the first matchup, so they would stand a reasonable shot against them in the first round.

Rotations Tightening Up

On the court, you see a renewed intensity as Porzingis is firing on all cylinders and the chemistry between him and Luka is starting to show their real potential down the stretch. Just look at their combined stat line against the Spurs last night: 54pts/22rbs/15asts/3stls/3blks and also a clutch WIN. These two are really looking ready to lead a strong playoff push for their team.

After those two, there seems to be some continuity in the rotations setting in for the first time since Dwight Powell went down, tossing the rotations into upheaval right as injuries oscillated Luka and KP out of the lineup as well.

This lineup has been really effective against the sub .500 opponents it’s seen so far in Sacramento, Orlando, Minnesota, and San Antonio but it’s yet to come up against a stout playoff opponent, which should be tested this Friday against the surging Heat (4th in the East). This lineup is clearly offense forward, but will hopefully get better on the defensive end as they get more time together.

Justin Jackson

The bench, however, has seen its rotations change again with the starters playing more and the rotations going from 12 players to 10 or even 9 before garbage time. It appears that certain players have lost their place in the rotation when the game is on the line such as Justin Jackson and Willie Cauley-Stein. Jackson has seen his minutes evaporate over the course of February but has only played 5 and 6 minutes when all starters played since the All-Star break.

Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein has been a reserve’s reserve so far with the Mavericks and has been away from the team for “Personal Reasons” since the All-Star break ended. Even so, his absence hasn’t changed much for the team. It’s safe to assume that both of their sittings is tied more to their play on the court than matchups and the team needs as much time for the remaining players to gel before they face real playoff stakes.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Players like Boban Marjanovic and JJ Barea will remain situational and matchup based, so they will stay viable options down the stretch while it seems Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is being given the opportunity to shore up the defense on the second unit alongside Maxi and Delon Wright so that the second unit isn’t losing a lead that the starters are taking for the team.

MKG’s role down the stretch is in flux, but it seems he can earn all the backup defender minutes he can stand with his ability to guard all 5 positions. Boban, JJ, and MKG appear to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice and effect change, which is a GREAT “ace in the hole” for Carlisle to take into playoff basketball. After all, we all know what kind of a difference inserting JJ Barea into the starting lineup for the first time all year in the 2011 championship run did.

Jalen Brunson

Jalen, while he is currently injured and out for the next 5 games or so, is really emblematic of all of the points made above. He was injured on the first play against Minnesota on Monday and a situational inserting of JJ Barea led the second unit in a masterful way. The decision to hold him out at minimum 5 games would give him 9 days to recover with the option of more IF the team is still firing on all cylinders with him sitting. However, they don’t want him out too long for sake of his chemistry with Delon in the backcourt rotation could suffer before the playoffs arrive.

Jalen is a big stakes game competitor and the team wants to know what he looks like in the playoffs, so his role and health is of paramount concern for this Mavericks staff. How the team handles Jalen can be a microcosm of how they feel the team is doing in the final third of the season.

It has been 4 years since the Mavs have graced the playoffs and it seems as though they are destined for a return this year. Even though they may squeak in, they have the potential to be a problem for whomever their top opponent is. This team will be smart down the stretch and is trying to show up ready to maximize their opportunity.

48 wins guaranteed admission to the Western Conference playoffs last year and the Mavs already have 36 wins.
Playing smart and playing team basketball should get them where they need to over these final 23 games. Let’s Go Mavs!

Featured Image: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
*Exact records and statistics may have changed from the time of
publishing of this article.
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