With only nine games remaining in the regular season, it has come down to a simple matter of mathematics for the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavericks must win Tuesday night in Los Angeles against the Lakers, or else they’ll be counted down and almost out of the race to secure the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Tip-off at the Staples Center is at 9:30 p.m. in a game that will be nationally televised on TNT, with the Mavericks clear on what’s at stake.
“I don’t want to say it’s the biggest game of the season, because the last 10 games it felt like we had five biggest games of the season,” center Elton Brand said. “Some we won, some we lost.
“So we won’t know until the end of the season which was the biggest. But it’s definitely a big game for us.”
The Mavericks (36-37) are locked into a heated battle with the Utah Jazz (38-36) and Lakers (38-36) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. As of now, the Jazz have the edge — in case the teams end the season tied — because they’ve already won the season series against the Mavericks (2-1) and Lakers (2-1).
Meanwhile, the Lakers own the tiebreaker over the Mavericks after winning two games in Dallas and losing one in LA. That makes Tuesday’s game even more important for the Mavericks.
“It’ll be huge for us,” said center Brandan Wright, who contributed 17 points and a season-high 13 rebounds during Saturday’s 100-98 win over Chicago. “All eyes are going to be on that game.
“We’re not only behind those guys, we’re behind Utah, also. We can’t afford to slip up against the Lakers and give them the tiebreaker.”
Because the Mavericks dug themselves into a 13-23 hole, they’ve been in complete scramble mode for nearly three months. The Mavericks dropped to a season-low 10 games under .500 when they lost to the Clippers in Los Angeles, 99-93, on Jan. 9.
Now, it’s back to Los Angeles for the Mavericks; but this time against the Staples Center’s more popular tenant, the Lakers.
“We understand where we’re at. We understand what’s at stake for us,” guard Mike James said. “So this is a huge game because right now every loss is doubled, especially when they win.
“It’s only nine games left in the season, so the season is real short. We have to take advantage of every game and make sure that we control our destiny, and the only way we do that is by winning.”
Tuesday’s game is the opener of a four-game road trip that also includes games in Denver, Sacramento and Portland before the Mavericks return home to host the Phoenix Suns on April 10.
In the meantime, the Mavericks hope they can use the momentum from Saturday’s victory over Chicago as a springboard against the Lakers.
“It’s great because we needed to win [against the Bulls] to really stay in the picture,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Regardless of who the opponents are coming up, it’s just important that we just continue to fight and battle and stick together.
“That’s the rallying cry. There’s a lot at stake here on a lot of different levels, and we’re going to compete.”
And compete in front of the many movie stars who are big-time Lakers followers.
“National TV, Staples Center, Jack Nicholson courtside,” Dirk Nowitzki told reporters Monday. “I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Because they started so poorly, the Mavericks have been on a hot seat.
And they’ve responded well with victories in 10 of their past 14 games.
“We’re in the playoffs right now,” Mike James said. “And all this is going to do is prepare us for if we do get into that eighth spot that we’ll be ready.’’
Briefly• On the four-game road trip, center Brandan Wright said: “We got a big road trip coming up and it’s pretty much going to make or break us.”
• On rallying from 12 points down with less than four minutes left to beat Chicago, center Elton Brand said: “Coach wouldn’t let us quit. He kept drawing up plays.”
• Rick Carlisle, on his reserve players: “Our bench has been one of our calling cards all year. We’ve got one of the high-scoring benches because we have a lot of our best players coming off the bench.”