Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mavs losses cause for concern

With the Mavs loss tonight to the Seattle SuperSonics, they have now put themselves in the position where the Mavericks must beat the New Orleans Hornets to secure the seventh seed and avoid the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. And if the Mavs want to enjoy a long (or at least longer than last year) playoff run, avoid LAL in the first round will be key.

The loss to Portland on Saturday was discouraging, but the Seattle game placed the Mavericks in an emotion-filled arena much like the kind they'll find in the playoffs. The SuperSonics were playing what appears to be their final game in Seattle unless courts decide the owners cannot move the team to Oklahoma City just yet. As a result, the Key Arena crowd was juiced. They were pumped. Chants of "SAVE OUR SONICS! SAVE OUR SONICS!" echoed through the building. To honor their city and their fans, the SuperSonics put forth an extraordinary effort.

The Mavericks need to take notice. Those raucous arenas are going to become more of the norm than an abberation over the next few weeks. You think the New Orleans Hornets fans wouldn't have their fans ready to go for their first playoff series since the team moved to New Orleans from Charlotte? You think the Lakers fans at the Staples Center won't be pumped? Any chance the defending champion Spurs and their fans will be yawning over the opportunity to send home the Mavericks in the first round? Don't count on it.

The one positive to take away from the loss in Seattle:
  • I did like how Avery Johnson called a timeout with 1.4 seconds left after the Sonics hit a free throw to put the game out of reach. Despite being down four, Avery was drawing up a game-winning type of play the Mavericks will probably need for the post-season. While the timeout drew boos from a packed Key Arena and extended a game that was already decided, the timeout gave the Mavs a chance to get ready for high-pressure playoff scenarios. The last-second shot by Dirk hit the rim and missed, but he did get the shot off and wasn't too far off the mark. That's encouraging.

So now Dallas has one game left in the regular season, a regular season that only seven months ago people were calling insignificant. Remember the days of October/November when all the talk was about, "Well, once the Mavs get back to the playoffs, that's where we'll really be able to rate their season." I submit to you this season's ratings can be separated: regular and post seasons. I may not have made that argument back in the fall of 2007, but it's spring 2008, so all bets are off.

Dallas has a chance to upset a top-tier team in the playoffs. Actually, anyone in the Western Conference who registers a series win will have knocked off a top-tier team, a 50-win team at that. So while the Mavericks playoff success will - I believe - largely depend on who they face in the first round, their regular season success has come in spurts and therefore is difficult to measure.

If the Mavs get hot in the post-season, they are going to be a very difficult team to stop. Remember, Dirk and Co. are just two years removed from an NBA Finals appearance. On the other hand, when Dallas has been off this season, they have been way off. The playoffs will depend not only on which team shows up to face Dallas, but also on which Dallas team shows up to play. This team has been so up and down, they are difficult to truly guage. Before back-to-back loses in the Pacific Northwest, I thought this team was capable of advancing to the conference finals. After losing to the likes of Portland and Seattle, all that confidence evaporated as quickly as a 13-point lead with six minutes to play in the third game of an NBA Finals (not that I have a specific example in mind).

So as the Mavs close out their regular season Wednesday in what could be a playoff preview against the New Orleans Hornets, look for which Mavericks team is showing up. Are they going for the W in order to end the regular season on a high - something they failed to do last year before exiting in the first round? Or are the Mavericks on cruise control, going through the motions and waiting until it matters. I suggest it already matters. How will the Mavericks respond?

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