Mavericks can still make a playoff push

Dallas’ unremarkable season continued Friday night with a second straight overtime loss to Oklahoma City. Dirk Nowitzki showed flashes (but only flashes) of what he’s capable of. He went just five for 19 from the field, but canned a jumper in overtime that gave Dallas an early three-point lead.

Unfortunately for them, Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City continued their tear through the NBA and finished the Mavs off for a three-point victory. The loss for Dallas dropped them to 17-24 in a (surprise, surprise) loaded Western Conference, four games down from eighth-place Portland.

But does Dallas still have hope? With the Lakers in desperation mode and Houston also in the playoff mix, the odds are definitely against the Mavericks.

That doesn’t mean it’s over (yet).

Imagine if OKC holds on to the number one seed in the Western Conference and Dallas has picked up serious steam in the second half, finishing 27-14, 44-38 overall, and the eighth seed in the West. Isn’t that a matchup that the Spurs and Clippers would love to watch the Thunder battle against in the first round of the playoffs?

Consider the history between Dallas and Oklahoma City. Nowitzki’s usually been stellar against Oklahoma City, averaging 32.6 points per game in the regular season since 2009. He’s averaging 33.9 if you subtract his lackluster performance on Friday. Against Oklahoma City in the playoffs, he’s scored 29.8 points per game.

It’s obvious that Nowitzki right now isn’t what he was two years ago or even last year, but Dallas can fly under the radar if he can get his legs under him sometime soon.

Kevin Durant has exploded against Dallas this season. He’s having his best season yet and one of the greatest offensive seasons ever, but he’s averaging a pedestrian (to him) 27.3 points per game versus Dallas in the playoffs and 28.6 in the regular season since 2010. It’s likely those numbers would climb, though, if the Thunder meet Dallas in the playoffs once again. He’s been so efficient to the point that he could make the 50-40-90 club.

But that doesn’t mean Oklahoma City would have it easy against the Mavericks. The Thunder have let leads slip away in the last seconds of their last two matchups. (Thanks to Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo.)

And don’t forget last season’s first round of the playoffs. It could’ve gone a very different route if Durant doesn’t save Oklahoma City from losing the first game of that series. The Thunder clearly have the upper hand, but the Mavericks have a knack for giving them all they can handle.

But, first thing’s first. Dallas has to take care of business now. Can they seriously get back into the fold? Let’s look at the last two playoff seeds which are held by Utah and Portland, despite negative point differentials.

Portland’s overachieved with a bench that’s as effective as an expired jar of peanut butter. They’ve also played a soft schedule, facing only 18 games against teams with a record above .500. That’s the lowest amount in the entire league. Meanwhile, Utah seems to be headed for another season of .500 ball. They’re terrific at home (12-4) but lackluster on the road (9-15).

Dallas’ schedule right now and in April also gives them a chance to get back into the mix. In their next 13 games they play Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, and Golden State all twice. Defeating Portland twice, though unlikely, would be a real step in the right direction. Also, Golden State might be 23-15 but they’ve fallen off the tracks as of late, losing five of their last six against a stiff schedule.

In that 13-game stretch, they have seven home games but will be on the road for five of their first seven. From there, they have a five-game home stand and no back-to-backs overall. That’s huge if they want to get their best out of Dirk as he comes back from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

Winning ten games during that stretch isn’t that crazy. They have six very winnable games against Sacramento, Orlando, and Phoenix. Going 4-3 or 5-2 in the other seven games would put Dallas right in the mix. It’s unlikely Dallas gets that hot, but, like Dallas’ playoff hopes overall, there’s still a chance.

And then there’s the last month of the regular season. Dallas starts with the Lakers and Denver in the first two games of April, but the schedule gets significantly lighter from there. Their last seven games feature two against New Orleans, one against Phoenix and one against Sacramento. Given the history of how lottery teams perform in April, Dallas has a favorable finish to the rest of the season.

The front office still has something to say about contending, too. Mark Cuban, like usual, is going to be a wildcard as the trade deadline approaches. He’s said he’s open to trades coming his way. Just for fun, I thought of Dallas sending Chris Kaman and picks to Cleveland for Anderson Vaerjao. Varejao’s injury all but kills this potential trade. Still, Cleveland would pick up cap space for next summer and continue to rebuild while Dallas gets an All-Star caliber big man in return.

Could Dallas try to pry DeMarcus Cousins away from Sacramento? I think Seattle Sacramento holds on to Cousins for one more season before seriously considering moving him. His rookie contract is a great bargain for the talent he has.

Dallas could also look into trading with Utah for either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Millsap, right now, is the cheaper of the two at $8.6 million compared to Jefferson’s $15 million. They could also take Raja Bell off of Utah’s hands for one of many of Dallas’ point guards.

Even though Cuban is open to trades, I highly doubt he would dangle O.J. Mayo. He’s been breathtaking in the open court and terrific from downtown, shooting a career-best 42 percent on five attempts per game. Mayo’s hit a wall as of late, going 45-109 and 10-37 from three, but things will be a lot easier for him if he can get open looks from Nowitzki.

He’s been a terrific bargain: 18 points per game for $4 million. A player option means he’s likely going to hit the market this summer for more money, but he’s obviously worth keeping if Dallas is going to make a push for the playoffs.

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