DALLAS — As the Dallas Mavericks escaped Michigan with a win on Thursday evening against the Detroit Pistons, the team reached the last month of the regular season with the 6th seed of the Western Conference firmly in their grasp.
The 115-105 victory against a bad Detroit team was not without drama. Kristaps Porziņģis left the game with yet another injury scare and Luka Dončić was getting some well deserved rest. That decision almost came back to haunt the Mavs, who have no room for error in the stretch run to the playoffs as they fight to keep from falling into the 7th seed and the dreaded Western Conference’s play-in tournament.
It was quite the slump buster for Hardaway as he scored the most points of the season by any Maverick not named Luka Dončić. It was the 5th game this season that Hardaway has led the team in scoring, eclipsing his previous season-high of 36 against Orlando back on Jan. 9.
With April behind them, the Mavericks enter the season’s final month with 10 games remaining in the sprint to the playoffs. Dallas (35-27) begins May a game back in the loss column of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers – a team they trounced in back-to-back meetings in late April – for 5th in the Western Conference standings.
The Mavs would love to be in the top five but will gladly take sixth, as well. The goal is to avoid the play-in Tournament, which will take place after the regular season but before the first round of the playoffs, and will include the teams with the seventh-highest through the tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference.
With the COVID outbreak on the squad in January, the supposed Dončić-Porziņģis friction, and the frustrating losses to teams lacking the Maverick’s talent, it has been quite the long season with a lot of pitfalls throughout. An abrupt end in the play-in tournament would leave a sour taste for Dallas on their way to the most important offseason in recent memory.
All of the drama leads to a torrid two-week stretch to close the season. Let’s take a look at the first week of May:
Saturday, May 1 vs Washington
Washington seems destined for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament if it can withstand late challenges by Chicago and Toronto. The Wizards are currently 10th in the East with a two game edge on the Bulls for the last tournament spot. Perennial Mavs wish-list acquisition, Bradley Beal, is leading the league in scoring this season
Sunday, May 2 vs Sacramento
Dallas will be looking for redemption in their last matchup of the season against the Kings. Sacramento is on their way to extending the longest current playoff drought in the NBA but have notched wins in both games against Dallas this season. The team that let Luka Dončić become a Maverick in favor of drafting Marvin Bagley III is playing for pure pride at this point, and the Mavericks will look to take that, too.
Tuesday, May 4 @ Miami
An eternal villain in every Maverick fan’s heart, Miami lost their New Year’s Day matchup against Dallas 93-83, where Dončić had 27 points and 14 rebounds on the night on his way to his first double-double of the young season. Miami is currently seventh in the East but is a game back of Atlanta in the fifth spot, and will be clearly motivated to avoid the play-in tournament themselves.
Thursday, May 6 vs Brooklyn
The most talked about team in basketball (43-20) has already clinched a playoff berth, but will be continuing to fight off Philadelphia for the top spot in the East. Stevie Nash’s squad has made the personalities fit in the locker room, but the three-headed attack of Kevin Durant (27.6 PPG), James Harden (26.9 PPG), and Kyrie Irving (25.4) has only played seven games together due to injuries and Irving’s availability. At their best, Brooklyn can pick any defense apart, but it is likely that “The Beard” misses the matchup against his former interstate rival.
Friday, May 7 vs Cleveland
Cleveland (21-41) is 21.5 games back of Brooklyn but is a clear “gotcha” game for the Mavericks, who have inexplicably lost to inferior teams this season. The Mavericks close the weekend with the first of back-to-back matchups against Collin Sexton and the Cavaliers and will look to capitalize on the rebuilding roster, stack their win total, and leave the play-in tournament to some other team out west.
"I don't understand the idea of the play-in tournament,” Dončić told the media earlier this season. “You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you're out of the playoffs. I don't see the point of that."
The team that ends up with the 7th seed (currently Portland) would face the eight place team to earn the 7th seed. The 9th seed would face the 10th seed in an elimination game. The team that lost the 7th-8th seed game would then face that winner for the 8th seed distinction. Got all that?
The Mavericks have a short amount of time to clinch the ability to avoid the tournament and the headache.
Dončić will likely need some rest prior to the start of the playoffs as well, but with Porziņģis’ uncertain health, and the uncertainty of the play-in tournament, rest for the 22-year-old will need to wait at least until the next week unless the Mavs make a serious dent in these five games.
Damian Lillard and Portland (34-28, 7th) continue to breathe down the Mavericks' neck for the final secure playoff berth. Avoiding the tournament also avoids the necessity of facing Ja Morant and the Grizzlies (31-30, 8th), the San Antonio Spurs (31-30, 9th), or Steph Curry and the Warriors (31-32, 10th) and getting bounced from the playoffs before they even start.
There is much left to do for Dallas, and first among them is avoiding realizing Luka Dončić and Mark Cuban’s tournament fears after such a long and emotional season.
Do you think the Mavericks will have a winning week? Make your predictions with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.