DALLAS — As if the Jazz didn’t have enough problems chasing the Rockets and the Lakers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, now they have a new concern — holding off the surging Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavericks team the Jazz play Sunday night has crept to within just one game of Utah in the West standings, meaning that a Dallas victory at American Airlines Center will pull the Mavericks into a tie with 12 games left in the regular season for each team.
The Jazz and Mavs tip it off at 5:30 p.m. MST, after which the Jazz return home for games Monday against Philadelphia and Wednesday against Phoenix.
Since the start of the month, the Mavericks have made up five games in the standings, going 7-3 in their last 10 games, while Utah has been an abysmal 2-8. On Friday, while the Jazz (34-35) were losing in overtime at San Antonio, the Mavs (33-36) had little trouble beating Boston at home by 10.
The Mavericks are getting healthy — Shawn Marion is back after missing eight games with a leg injury — and Dirk Nowitzki is playing better after sitting out the first 27 games due to knee surgery. Over his last five games, Nowitzki has averaged 20.2 points, well above his 16.4 scoring average on the year.
O.J. Mayo leads the Mavs in scoring at 16.7, while sixth man Vince Carter averages 13.1 and point guard Darren Collison scores 12.3 per game.
The Mavericks, who haven’t even been mentioned as playoff contenders, suddenly have plenty of motivation with the postseason in sight. Clear back on March 4, coach Rick Carlisle said the team still had a chance at the playoffs and now it does, being just 2 1/2 games behind the Lakers, who lost at home to Washington Friday.
The Jazz are hanging on for dear life, but Utah coach Tyrone Corbin likes his team’s chances of making the playoffs if they can play like they did against San Antonio Friday.
“If we play this way every night against everybody, we’ll be OK,’’ he said “That’s what we’re looking for is the effort. You get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You feel sorry for yourself and at some point you have to step up and fight.’’
“I thought we showed a lot of that tonight, to come out and lay everything on the line,’’ he continued. “This kind of effort will give you a chance any night. The guys just decided to let it go and play.’’
Mo Williams had his best game since returning from his thumb injury with 23 points, while Al Jefferson had another double-double with 18 points and 11 boards.
Two of the biggest difference makers, however, were young guys Derrick Favors and Alec Burks. Favors played a strong defensive game with four blocked shots and eight rebounds, while Burks ran the team well as the backup point guard and also scored 14 points.
“Derrick did a great job of clogging up the middle and coming across early and making great plays on the ball,’’ said Corbin. “Alec Burks is a young guy who continues to get better. It doesn’t matter which position he plays. He just comes out and plays his game. We put him in a tough spot and he continues to respond and it's going to be great for him going down the stretch.’’
Burks played 24 minutes and looks to be Corbin’s choice for backup point guard as veterans Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson each never left the bench. Also playing minutes of late is forward Marvin Williams, who logged nearly 35 minutes, more than any player except Jefferson and Mo Williams.