No one has to remind Dirk Nowitzki of the importance of the Dallas Mavericks’ final five games of the regular season.
The 18-time All-Star forward knows the remaining games against the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs will determine whether the Mavericks will be playoff participants, or if they’ll miss the postseason for the second time in the last four years.
“This is obviously a playoff stretch already,” Nowitzki said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got to win as many as we can against tough, tough opponents, starting obviously tomorrow night. All five [games] are playoff-caliber teams, they’re good teams.”
First up on the Mavericks’ check list is an 8:30 p.m. encounter Wednesday night at American Airlines Center against the Rockets. The Mavericks then host the Grizzlies on Friday, play a road back-to-back Sunday against the Clippers and Monday against the Jazz before ending the regular season April 13 at home against the Spurs.
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I expect our guys to be excited to play. They’ve been excited to play every game for the last week.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle
It’s a nerve-wracking set of important games where the Mavs will have to be on their game in order to come out on top. But the Mavericks are aware that they can’t win all five games in one night.
“In a stretch like this you don’t want to look too far ahead,” Nowitzki said. “You play as hard as you can, minute to minute, possession to possession.
“You try to get a home win. That’s how you got to look at it [Wednesday], and then we’ll worry about the rest after that.”
The Mavericks (39-38) are holding the seventh seed in the Western Conference race and possess the tiebreaker over the eighth-seeded Jazz (39-39). Meanwhile, the Rockets (38-39) are just a game behind the Mavericks.
Barring a free-fall by the fifth-seeded Grizzlies (42-36) and/or sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers (41-37), the Mavs, Jazz and Rockets will battle for the final two playoff spots. And the pressure is mounting.
“We’ve been playing one-game elimination games for a month, so this is another one of those just in terms of mentality,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “There’s no need to overstate the importance of it for both teams.”
And no need to stress how all teams involved must raise their level of play, or else those off-season vacation plans will be coming sooner rather than later.
I love competing, whether it’s a regular-season game, a playoff game, or sometimes even a preseason game — when I was younger, not any more now.
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki
“I expect our guys to be excited to play,” said Carlisle, whose team has won four straight. “They’ve been excited to play every game for the last week.
“We’re an experienced team, so our guys will figure out all the emotions of it. It’s just we have to be very aggressive and our mindset has to be one of persistence and aggression. We’re not going to get into over-thinking things.”
Maybe not, but the Rockets hold the first tiebreaker over the Mavericks by a 2-1 edge in head-to-head competition. However, the Mavs won the season series over the Blazers (2-1), and are 2-1 against the Grizzlies and 1-1 against the Jazz.
The ups and downs in the standings on a nightly basis lately have turned just about everyone into scoreboard watchers.
“Lately in the season, everybody talks about it, so you don’t even have to watch it,” guard J.J. Barea said. “You’re going to know where everybody’s at, and every time you turn on the TV you know where Houston and Utah are, so we’ll see how it goes. If we win games here, especially starting [with the Rockets], we’re going to be fine.”
Nowitzki, for one, embraces the challenge that these types of games present.
“You just look forward to the competition. I mean, that’s how I always do it,” he said. “I don’t worry about the magnitude or whatever, or pressure.
“I love competing, whether it’s a regular-season game, a playoff game or sometimes even a preseason game — when I was younger, not any more now. You play your minutes hard, you might not always shoot the ball well, but you’ve got to do some other stuff for the team and hopefully come out on the winning end at the end.”