The NBA playoffs don’t start until late April.
But as far as Dirk Nowitzki is concerned, they start Wednesday when the Dallas Mavericks square off against the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum in a game with playoff implications.
The Mavericks (28-21) are one game ahead of the Grizzlies (26-21) for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Dallas has beaten Memphis twice this season in Dallas, so if the Mavericks win Wednesday, they’ll clinch that playoff tiebreaker.
“It’s a big game,” said Nowitzki, the Mavericks’ 12-time All-Star. “You don’t really want to say in February it’s a playoff game, but it definitely will be that kind of intensity.
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“We’ve beaten them already twice this year, so they’re going to be ready to play, especially coming off a loss. They’re very, very good defensively. They’re long, they’re tough, so it’s going to be a grind-out type of game.”
The Grizzlies are the NBA’s hottest team. Before Monday’s 86-77 loss in Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies had won 11 of 12 games, including five in a row.
More importantly, they have back a huge piece of their front wall in center Marc Gasol, who missed 23 games with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee. Since Gasol’s return Jan. 14, Memphis is 9-2 and appears to have regained the swagger that earned them a trip to last year’s Western Conference Finals.
“Since Marc’s back they’ve been playing phenomenal,” Nowitzki said. “I said once they get healthy they’re going to make a run at the playoffs and that’s exactly what they’re doing.
“We’ve got our hands full — it’s going to be a tough game. It’s going to be a playoff-type atmosphere.”
Forward Shawn Marion practiced Tuesday and will be back in the starting lineup against the Grizzlies.
Marion missed the previous two games with soreness in his right shoulder and upper ribs. He suffered contusions stemming from a fall Jan. 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I feel good,” Marion said. “My flexibility is back 85-90 percent. I’ve felt better the last few days and there’s no setbacks. I feel like I can be good to go.”
Marion’s return is important because of the Grizzlies’ big front line in Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tayshaun Prince.
“They’re a half-court team and they’re going to go to their big guys,” Marion said. “They clog the paint well and they protect the glass.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep a body on them. We have to hit them first.”
If center Samuel Dalembert can give the Mavericks 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks consistently like he did in Monday’s 124-107 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, they believe they can compete with any team in the NBA.
“Obviously he’s not going to get 18 and eight every night, but we’d love him to be active,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “If he goes after shots and contests shots at the rim, and rebounds and get some tip-outs and finishes around the rim, then we’re a different team.”
Dalembert converted 7 of 8 shots against the Cavs, and most were dunks and layups.
“He’s a very important part of our team because of his length,” Carlisle said. “When he is in there we are better defensively.”