It might be human nature for the Dallas Mavericks to have breathed a little sigh of relief as they left Memphis.
But they better not let coach Rick Carlisle hear it.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ hot breath is no longer blowing on the Mavs’ necks after a statement win Wednesday night by Dallas at FedExForum. The Mavs’ 110-96 victory created a two-game cushion over the Grizzlies for eighth place — the final playoff spot — in the Western Conference standings.
That’s swell and all, but it certainly doesn’t satisfy a coach who earned a championship ring a few years ago. Eighth isn’t enough.
[+] EnlargeJustin Ford/USA TODAY Sports“Who wants to be in the eighth spot if you’ve got a chance to move up to seventh, sixth, fifth or fourth?” Rick Carlisle said after Dallas took a two-game lead over Memphis for eighth place in the West. “That’s what our mindset’s got to be.”
“We’re a team looking to move up,” Carlisle told reporters. “We’re looking to move up in the standings. We’re not looking to just hang on to the eighth spot. Who wants to be in the eighth spot if you’ve got a chance to move up to seventh, sixth, fifth or fourth? That’s what our mindset’s got to be.”
It’d be foolish to dismiss the Grizzlies, who were as hot as any team in the NBA before losing two of three games since point guard Mike Conley went down with a sprained ankle (which isn’t expected to sideline him much longer).
But Carlisle sent a strong message that the Mavs’ focus should be on catching the teams in front of them, not treading water to barely get back in the playoffs after the proud franchise’s one-year absence.
For all the talk of how tough it’ll be just to make the playoffs in the West, the Mavs are only a half-game behind the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors in the standings. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Dallas could run down the Houston Rockets or Los Angeles Clippers, who are four games ahead of the Mavs at the moment.
“This is the kind of win we’ve been trying to get to get some momentum,” Carlisle said after Dallas dominated the final 14 minutes in Memphis en route to the Mavs’ third straight win. “We’ve just got to keep it going.”
To be clear, Carlisle doesn’t want the Mavs constantly worrying about the standings, whether they’re looking at the teams ahead or behind them. His daily challenge to his team is to focus on the process of maximizing this team’s potential.
For talented teams that do that — and stay healthy — the standings tend to sort out favorably.
As of now, the Mavs couldn’t ask for much better health. The roster has flaws, but it still features a legitimate superstar in Nowitzki, who had another beautifully efficient offensive performance by scoring 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting against one of the league’s elite defensive teams.
Nowitzki’s supporting cast was upgraded significantly in the summer, with Monta Ellis serving as an explosive sidekick, if not a co-star. The Mavs’ bench is one of the better second units in the league now that Devin Harris and Brandan Wright are making impacts after recovering from injuries that sidelined them for long stretches to start the season.
There are signs that Carlisle is getting through to this team, too. He pretty much publicly questioned the Mavs’ basketball manhood after a loss to the Houston Rockets last week. They’ve responded with three straight wins. And they outrebounded the gritty Grizzlies, outscoring Memphis by a stunning 56-32 margin in the paint.
“We showed a lot of guts and resolve tonight, which is encouraging, but it guarantees nothing beyond tonight,” Carlisle said. “We know that.
“We’re looking for more. We’re looking to get better. We had nine new guys this year. We’re 50 games in. We’re at the point now where nobody wants to hear about a bunch of new guys. Fifty games in, you’ve become a team or you haven’t. Tonight shows that we’re in the mode of becoming a real team, but we’ve got to just keep working at it.”
The Mavs’ win in Memphis ranks among their most impressive of the season. It certainly was their most important victory to this point.
For Carlisle, it presented a perfect opportunity to keep pushing.