Mavs vs. Clippers preview: Dallas making a late playoff push

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After being written off for dead for most of the season, the Mavs have quietly moved to 1.5 games behind the Lakers for the final playoff spot out West.

With a 9-4 record in the month of March, the Mavericks are the only team in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference that appears to be peaking at the right time. As a result, they're now only 1.5 games behind the Lakers for the final playoff spot. On Tuesday, they'll get a chance to move even closer when they play the Clippers at home.

L.A., meanwhile, can ill afford a loss to a team below .500. They're locked in a tight battle with Denver and Memphis for the No. 3 seed, with all three teams within one game of each other in the standings. All three would like home-court advantage in the first round and desperately want to avoid a brutal first-round series in a Western Conference five deep with legitimate teams.

Dallas will need to find a way to get Dirk Nowitzki the ball, as he's finally rounding into shape after missing the first two months of the season with a knee injury. In the last five games, Nowitzki is averaging 20 points a game on 64% shooting. However, he's only taken more than 11 shots twice in that stretch, as inconsistent play from the Mavericks PG's -- Darren Collison and Mike James -- has often turned Dirk into a decoy for long stretches.

On the other side of the floor, Dirk will likely be hidden on DeAndre Jordan, which could mean a huge game for Blake Griffin since none of the Mavericks C's can physically match up with him. Griffin, whose averaging 18 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 57% shooting this season, could have a field day against Chris Kaman (too slow), Brandan Wright (too skinny) and Elton Brand (too old).

Battle of the Sixth Men

One of the key match-ups to watch will be the battle between two of the best bench scorers in the NBA -- Jamal Crawford and Vince Carter. Crawford, who won the Sixth Man of the Year Award for the Hawks in 2010, is one of the front-runners for the honor this season, averaging 17 points and 2.5 assists a game on 44% shooting. Carter, meanwhile, has been re-energized in Dallas, averaging 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on 44% shooting. Both players have the ability to shoot their teams in and out of games in a stretch of 4-5 minutes.

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