Despite the Dallas Mavericks coming up short in overtime in their last two road games, they will most likely make the playoffs. That's the good news.
Actually, scratch that, I'm having an extremely hard time this season deciding whether the Mavs are taking care of business or not. I mean, 4 OTs in two games? 28 losses this season, and they still have tiebreakers on the Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets and Suns? It's gotta be at least 50% likely that they're actually playing above their heads this season, rather than below.
They've had one month this season where they played significantly over .500 ball, and it was January. They're sliding in all categories (19th in points per game, 11th in rebounds, 14th in assists, 10th in points allowed). That's the bad news. So the Mavericks are pretty likely to make the playoffs, something we could know as soon as Friday. Then what?
They going to play either the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers or Clippers. My gut feeling is that three of those teams are objectively better than they are this year. I do think the Mavs can take the Clips. I'd also bet that one of those other three is coming out of the West, unless it's Memphis. That's odds for you. But despite what people tell you all year, you never do know and it's silly to pretend.
We actually have some pretty good prognostication tools for the three most likely series (Mavs-Spurs, Mavs-Thunder, Mavs-Lakers) because the Mavericks played two of these teams last year in the playoffs, and the other one is the Spurs, a team new in some ways-but do you really think you can apply conventional logic if it's Spurs-Mavericks? After all these years? I do not.
This is who the Mavs would play if the season ended today. In some ways, it looks like a terrifying matchup-the Thunder have lit teams up all season and the popular narrative is that they have matured as a team. Am I buying the popular narrative? I am not.
I realize we're not supposed to talk about it. But the fact of the matter is, how you play all season really doesn't matter. It's nice to have a higher seed, it's nice to think you're a pretty good outfit, but everybody starts 0-0 in the playoffs.
Sometimes, you have to look at factors that might inflate win totals artificially, or deflate them, and in the Thunder's case, the fact that they're collectively 22 years old is, to me, a huge red flag. They got a lot of wins early on the basis of the fact that they ran a single wind sprint and were back in shape, while Kobe was getting his plasma shipped around and Dirk was unable to bend his right knee. They're 5-5 over the last ten.
Are they a great team? Of course. Can they beat the Mavericks? Of course. Can the Mavericks beat them? Of course.
How did the Mavericks beat the Thunder last year? Well, Dirk can match Durant some nights, and despite the fact that Durant is a more evolved scorer than Dirk (i.e. can score from more places in more ways), you CAN actually play some D on Durant if you really put some work into it, and you cannot do that to Dirk.
The Thunder have two elite scorers, but some nigthts they're not going to be able to make up for the Mavs huge cadre of semi and demi-elite scorers. Not with all the Thabo Sefolosha's and Serge Ibaka's in the world.
If the Thunder are a different team this year, it's only because James Harden has taken a huge leap forward. He's up to 16.4 from 12.2 last year. If Terry doesn't have some really good games, that alone means the Thunder win. But the old Thunder is still there. They're still 30th in assists. Scotty Brooks is still not all that good. Neither is the defense.
The Thunder are 3-1 against the Mavericks this year, but they're a buzzer-beating Durant 30-footer from being 2-2, and one of the other one's was when Dark Ages Dirk shot 2-15 for 8. Marion also usually does a terrific job on Durant, for whatever reason. Without Chandler, they have less likelihood of stopping Westbrook. Still.
Upset Probability: 4/10
This one strikes me as the least likely. And I honestly don't know what would happen in it. The Spurs were in roughly this same position last year when they were taken down by a surprising Memphis team. San Antonio has have been playing the best b-ball in the league the last month and a half and it's because of their diverse array of scorers, diverse ways to score, impressive team defense and, as always, the best coaching in the business.
Can the Mavericks beat the Spurs? I don't know. With the way the Mavericks bench is playing, no. And the Mavs are likely to be eaten alive on the boards against Duncan, Blair and Splitter, as well as the surprising Kawhi Leonard (5.2rpg). The Spurs team is in many ways the image of what the Mavs hoped they were doing all these years, since they're doing the same thing they've always been doing (lead scorers, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili) but with new young talent to supplement (Daniel Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, etc).
Unfortunately, the Mavericks draft like a deranged carnival barker, so we get Vince Carter instead.
On the other hand, the Spurs defense is actually not very good this year and when I look at a team that has 8 guys scoring over 9 pointsa game (seriously? That's amazing), but nobody scoring over 19, and only one person scoring over 16, I think that's an offense seriously short of dyed-in-the-wool scorers and that can be a liability come playoff time.
On the other hand, as I've said, if the Mavs and Spurs are playing you basically can't ever guess anything at all.
Upset Probability: 3/10
Mavs Vs. Lakers
It may not always be true, as some columnists have insinuated (including myself), that the Lakers are better off when Kobe isn't chucking. After all, it's seemed to work pretty well over the years. But it's certainly true in the Mavericks case.
Why? Because the Lakers have the longest front court since Mad Henry "Huge Lawn" McGillicudy. And the Mavericks have an immobile stump in Haywood, who does good defense but certainly has never been able to move to help on the dump-off, Dirk, who, as we always say charitably, has turned into an okay help defender but that's it, Mahimni who's just terrible of late, and Wright who's a terrifically efficient offensive player and will not be able to grab one board against Andrew Bynum.
Last year's sweep was surprising, and flukey, but not overall unpredictable. After all, with Chandler and Haywood in the rotation, the Mavericks could at least do SOMETHING against Bynum and with DeShawn and Peja also in the rotation, the Mavs could really make hay of the Lakers major weakness, which still exists, their inability to get out on the three.
With fewer sharpshooters and less inside help, the Mavs would seem to be in trouble. Also, Dirk, playing at the height of his power last year made Pau Gasol look like an 8th grader after an awkward growth spurt. This year, Dirk is struggling through an off one.
On the other hand, Kobe is injured. And as unwilling as he's been to turn things over to Bynum and others during the season, just wait till the playoffs. And Bynum seems about as mature as your average toddler so that's likely to be handled in a calm and philosophical manner. And the Lakers may have the worst bench of any good team in the league.
Upset Probability: 3/10