This is an important week for the Dallas Mavericks, who have steadily hung around fifth place in the West behind the four heavyweights widely considered favorites to make up the conference semifinal field.
Considering some expected they would miss the playoffs altogether after memorably failing to land top free agency target DeAndre Jordan, the Mavs have been a pleasant surprise.
Plan B, consisting of point guard Deron Williams and center Zaza Pachulia after Wes Matthews honored his commitment, has worked out better than anyone could’ve dreamed. Williams has been productive and has occasionally looked like his former All-Star self.
Chandler Parsons, also on the mend after offseason knee surgery, has played over 30 minutes in seven of the last eight games after not doing so for the first 26 as he was eased back into action. He should be able to get into a great rhythm this month as he keeps progressing.
Despite Jordan’s reneging on a promise to join them, the Mavericks could be a viable threat now that Dirk Nowitzki has a supporting cast. Rick Carlisle’s coaching, both his strategy and lineups, are elite. Guys seem to get along and the roster that has been assembled is filled with true pros.
Still, there’s always going to be a sense they’re overachieving and a fear that the older players they’re leaning on are going to wear down. That brings us back to why this week matters.
After ending December with four consecutive wins, including a 114-91 waxing of the Stephen Curry-less Warriors, Dallas has dropped games to the Heat and Pelicans in 2016. They’re potentially going to be without Williams against Sacramento on Tuesday due to a hamstring injury and have been without key guard Devin Harris during the losses due to a back problem.
The Kings, led by former point guard Rajon Rondo, will be one of only two opponents that have to come through Dallas between now and Jan. 18, a span of eight games. This week’s slate, filled with sub-.500 teams in Sacramento, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Minnesota, must be capitalized upon given what lies ahead.
Starting next Monday, the Mavericks will play perhaps the most daunting four-game stretch anyone in the entire NBA will face this season, hosting the Cavs before road games against the Thunder, Bulls and Spurs.
In order to stay ahead of the pace as the fifth-best team in the Western Conference, the Mavericks must continue to handle the favorite role – they’ll likely be one in at least two of this week’s three road games – effectively. Dallas is 12-4 (10-6 ATS) as a favorite this season, including 4-0 (2-2 ATS) in that role on the road.
Ish hits lull in L.A.
The Christmas acquisition of Ish Smith delivered Philadelphia outright victories in two of his first three games in addition to covers each time out. The new year hasn’t treated Smith or the 76ers as kindly in a pair of losses at Staples Center against the Lakers (93-84) and Clippers (130-99).
Smith shot 5-for-28 in the defeats, so teams are playing off him and challenging him to shoot. He’ll need to get into a rhythm and grow more familiar with his new teammates, but I don’t see another 12-game streak of losses and non-covers in Philly’s future.
Smith has helped get Nerlens Noel off, which was the primary purpose for his acquisition. Over the five games Noel has played with Smith, he’s averaged 16 points and 9.2 rebounds on over 70 percent shooting.
With the 76ers opening a six-game homestand against Minnesota on Jan. 4, they have an opportunity to settle in for a spoiler run against East heavyweights Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago. Portland comes into town to close the stretch on Jan. 16. By the time the Blazers arrive, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Philly on a run of ‘overs’ as new associate head coach Mike D’Antoni gets his philosophies across.
Eye Lakers’ run
D’Antoni got very little reaction in his return to Staples, where the Lakers have managed to record their first three-game winning streak of the season, running a cover run to four. L.A. hadn’t covered more than two games in a row at any point over the first two months.
They’ve won the last two games with Kobe Bryant sitting due to a shoulder injury and Lou Williams emerging as a primary catalyst, shooting 24-for-41 from the field and 9-for-16 from 3-point range. Top picks D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are looking more comfortable and PG Jordan Clarkson is playing better.
I wouldn’t call the Lakers a live dog with Golden State and OKC coming to town, but they’re certainly capable of covering a double-digit spread. Thursday’s visit to Sacramento may also be winnable.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].