DALLAS -- With only four games remaining in the regular season, the Dallas Mavericks still aren't sure whether they're going to qualify for the playoffs so they can attempt to defend their NBA title.
But if the Mavericks are concerned about their playoff positioning, they sure aren't showing it. Which is exactly how a veteran team should act.
Never let them see your hole card until you're completely out of the playoffs.
Mostly, the Mavericks are in this 34-28 rut because they're getting a dose of the same medicine they dished out on a regular basis during last year's championship run. And it's making them sick.
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Time after time last season, the Mavericks were seemingly out of a game, but found a way to get back in it and win. In a reversal of fortune, that familiar strategy is working against the Mavericks this year.
Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher and Chauncey Billups all hit late 3-pointers to defeat the Mavericks this season. And on Sunday, the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers rallied to knock off the Mavericks in overtime 112-108.
But the Mavericks even topped that game Monday when the Utah Jazz took them into triple overtime before beating Dallas 123-121.
"That's happened to us all season," guard Jason Terry said. "It's a broken record.
"Teams are hitting some shots that just on a normal day I don't think those go in, but we're just going to have to keep fighting through it. It's just something we're faced with."
The Mavericks host the Houston Rockets at 7:30 tonight and the Golden State Warriors on Friday. They close the season with road games Saturday in Chicago and April 26 at Atlanta.
In sizing up the aforementioned games, the Mavericks are 2-0 against a Rockets team that's in ninth place in the Western Conference and fighting for their playoff lives. Also, the Warriors have dropped 12 of their past 14 games and won't be a threat because they're trying to secure one of the top lottery picks -- so losses help their cause.
The tougher games for the Mavericks will be against the Bulls and Hawks. Chicago (46-15) is waging a battle against Miami (43-17) for the No. 1 seed out East. But the Bulls might be without the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player in point guard Derrick Rose, who has missed 24 games this year with various injuries.
Meanwhile, the fifth-seeded Hawks (36-25) are in a neck-and-neck race with fourth-seeded Boston (36-25) for the No. 4 spot and the valuable home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Mavericks are seventh in the West and trying to fight off eighth-place Phoenix (32-29), Houston (32-29) and Utah (32-30) for one of the conference's eight playoff spots.
It's difficult to think that a team as prideful as the Mavs has lost its desire to win games and reach the playoffs. They're not cut from that mold.
But unless they can get into a first-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavericks might exit from the playoffs in the first round. The NBA is a game of matchups, and the Mavericks don't match up well with Oklahoma City, nor those Los Angeles teams -- the Lakers or Clippers.
"It's easy to say what your sense or feel is for the playoffs or the postseason, but we're not there yet," forward Shawn Marion said. "We've just got to keep taking one game at a time and finish the season off. It's been an up-and-down year."
More than anything, if the Mavericks reach the playoffs, they will have earned it. Teams are giving the Mavericks their best shot, but that could work to the Mavs' advantage - assuming they advance to the postseason.
"This team is not down and out," guard Delonte West said. "We're still a confident team, and we still believe in ourselves and we'll see how it goes Wednesday."
If the Mavericks do the unfathomable and miss the playoffs, they will become just the third team to win the NBA title and not qualify for the playoffs in the ensuing season. The last team to do it was the Bulls, who won the title in 1998 but missed the playoffs in '99 after Michael Jordan's retirement.
Since improving to a season-best 20-11 with an 82-75 win at Philadelphia on Feb. 17, the Mavericks are a paltry 14-17 while looking like a shell of their former selves. And losses such as the ones the Mavericks suffered against the Lakers and Jazz could be disheartening.
"The efforts are good, and we've got to continue it," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I told the guys after [Monday's] game I've never seen teams hit shots on us the way teams are hitting shots on us this year, and we cannot get discouraged."
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760