PHOENIX — PHOENIX Although the Dallas Mavericks have already bizarrely lost four games this season when they led by 17 or more points, they’re playing better at the midway point of this season than they were last year.At the midway point last season the Mavericks were struggling with a paltry 17-24 record. Dallas made up some ground and finished 41-41 but missed out on the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-’00 season. If the 2013-14 season ended today, the Mavericks would be seeded eighth in the Western Conference playoffs.The Mavericks are 23-17 going into Friday’s game at Phoenix. Here are five things to look for as the Mavericks enter the second half of the season:1Return of Devin HarrisThe Mavericks have been patiently awaiting the arrival of Harris, who has missed the entire season after undergoing left foot surgery in August. With Harris, the Mavericks won’t have to rely on rookies Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel to back up Jose Calderon at point guard. He is also a better defender than all three of those players.2Middle rotation settledAt some point, the Mavericks will have to settle on a two-man rotation at center. Right now, they’re splitting the center minutes between Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair and Brandan Wright. It’s difficult for players to get into a flow when they’re in and out of the lineup.3Speed game becomes fluidWhen Devin Harris, whose return is near, is coupled with Monta Ellis, the Mavericks will have one of the fastest backcourts in the NBA. That speed should enable the Mavericks to get more than their share of easy baskets in the difficult Western Conference.4Playing with a full rosterThe Mavericks have yet to have an active full roster. That will change when Harris returns next week, giving coach Rick Carlisle more workable combinations to put on the floor. And with Carlisle among the top three or four coaches in the league in terms of adjustments and working his roster, look for the Mavericks to finish fifth in the West.5Mavericks in the playoffsBy hook or by crook, the Mavericks will find a way to re-introduce themselves to the playoffs after a one-year absence. This team is too talented and too deep at every position — and too well-coached — not to be part of the NBA’s postseason.The Mavericks have had a bumpy, but improved first half of the season, thanks in part to the arrival of Ellis and the spirited play of veteran Dirk Nowitzki. Here’s a look at some notables from the Mavericks and from around the league:Best Game Dec. 7 Mavericks @ Portland. With the score tied at 106-106, the Mavericks brought the ball inbounds with just 1 second left. Ellis hit a 21-footer to give Dallas an electrifying 108-106 victory.Worst Game Jan. 15 Mavericks @ LA Clippers. The Mavericks were cruising along with tons of momentum and a 123-106 lead with only 4:48 remaining. But in a colossal collapse, the Mavericks were outscored 23-4 the rest of the way and lost to the Clippers 129-127.Team MVP Dirk Nowitzki. Until otherwise stated, it should be duly noted that Nowitzki is still one of the game’s 20 best players. The 16-year veteran is tied for 13th in the NBA in scoring (21.3 points per game), ranks fourth in free throw shooting (90.7 percent) and also is shooting 48.2 percent from the field.Best Newcomer Monta Ellis. The free-agent acquisition has been so efficient in his first season with Dallas that he might reach his first All-Star game. Ellis is seventh in the NBA in steals (1.85 per game), tied for 16th in assists (6.0), and 17th in scoring (20.0 per game). He doesn’t mind taking big shots, either.NBA’s MVP Lebron James. In a close race with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Miami’s James gets the MVP nod because of his overall production. Winner of the MVP award in four of the past five years, James continues to dominate the NBA. He is third in scoring (25.9) and fourth in field-goal percentage (58.7). NBA’s Biggest Surprise Team Phoenix Suns. Hands down, they are the league’s surprise team so far. With a new coach (Jeff Hornacek), a set of twins (Markieff and Marcus Morris), and a castoff from seven NBA teams, three D-League squads and three overseas teams (Gerald Green), the Suns are settling some old scores.
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @dwainprice