DALLAS -- After playing 57 games during a 66-game lockout-shortened season, it has come down to this for the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavs are facing a must-win home game Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. against a Sacramento Kings team that is headed to the NBA Draft Lottery.
Usually, must-win games are reserved for when the league's top-tier teams come to town. But the Mavs (31-26) are no longer in a position of power, and have been reduced to just trying to scrap out a win against one of the NBA's bottom-feeders.
"We absolutely have to get Tuesday's game at home before we go out on the road and have a tough trip," forward Dirk Nowitzki said. "It's a lot of must-wins over the course of the season, but this is definitely a huge game for us, and hopefully we can respond and have a good start and really get our juices flowing early after two days off."
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The Mavs find themselves in soul-searching mode after falling behind the Memphis Grizzlies 26-6 late in the first quarter before suffering a 94-89 defeat. It was the Mavs' third loss in four games and left a lot of folks wondering where this team is headed.
"I don't know," forward Shawn Marion said. "I don't know. I can't answer that."
The Mavs were 20-11 on Feb. 11 after they captured their sixth straight victory with an 82-75 win in Philadelphia. Since then, they're only 11-15 and are in a downward spiral that started in New York on Feb. 19 when ex-Mavs summer leaguer Jeremy Lin whacked Dallas for 28 points, 14 assists and five steals during a 104-97 Knicks victory.
Now, the Mavs are seeded No. 7 in the Western Conference standings and are practically guaranteed to start the playoffs on the road. If they qualify for the playoffs, which is not exactly a lock with the way they've played lately.
"Looking at the standings should get us even more motivated," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I am not a big watcher of standings. But for anybody that is, it brings to the forefront the urgency of the situation."
Ironically, the Mavs no longer talk about getting the No. 4 seed -- a precious nugget which would give them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They don't even talk about repeating as NBA champions.
If the Mavs don't make the playoffs, they'll be the first defending NBA champions not to qualify for the playoffs the ensuing season since the 1998 champion Chicago Bulls failed to advance to the playoffs in the 1998-'99 lockout-shortened season.
"I think it's obvious if we want to do something to make the playoffs, or do some damage in the playoffs, we all have to play at a high level," Nowitzki said. "That's what we did last year.
"We picked up some momentum and had everybody play well, [grabbing] defensive rebounds, and on offense we shared the ball and played well together. And that's the only way we're going to do it this year."
The Mavs have talked about bouncing back from losses all season. They certainly need a bounce-back game against the Kings.
After that, the Mavs will embark on a four-games-in-five-days trip -- Thursday at Golden State, Friday at Portland, Sunday at the Los Angeles Lakers, and Apr. 16 at Utah.
"Every game now is going to be of even more significant importance, and we know that," Carlisle said. "We'll have a good practice [today] and get ready for Tuesday."
Mavs missing Kidd
While Delonte West has filled in admirably at point guard, the Mavs await the return of Jason Kidd, who has missed the last four games with a strained right groin.
Without naming names, Shawn Marion said: "It's time to stop forcing stuff and really keep everyone involved. I think it will change [upon Kidd's return]. He's our floor general. We don't know when he's coming back and we can't continue to keep harping on that."
Rick Carlisle hopes Kidd returns for Tuesday's game against the Kings. But he doesn't know if the 39-year-old and 18-year veteran will be ready.
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760