Not only did Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks clinch a spot in the playoffs with a 101-92 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday night, they put themselves in position to avoid the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
Nowitzki had 22 points and 11 rebounds and Deron Williams added 23 points and six assists as the Mavericks punched their ticket to the postseason for the 15th time in 16 seasons thanks to a strong defensive performance against the Jazz.
It's a remarkable feat for a team that has been hampered by injuries all season and wasn't expected to make the playoffs after coming up short in the DeAndre Jordan free agency saga last summer. But Nowitzki and a beautiful coaching job by Rick Carlisle have the Mavericks locking down defensively and they're in the playoffs again. Zaza Pachulia and Wesley Matthews have been essential with Chandler Parsons having missed the last 12 games and not likely to return unless the Mavericks make a playoff run.
Since Parsons went out after undergoing knee surgery, the Mavericks are averaging 94.93 possessions per 48 minutes. They averaged 96.77 before Parsons went out. The slower pace is working. They're scoring more efficiently and are 8-4 without their star. It helps when the defense tightens its hold and the veterans Nowitzki and Williams play like they did on Monday.
Now, the Mavericks need a win over Spurs -- who are likely to rest players with the No. 2 seed already locked up -- and one Grizzlies loss to avoid the Warriors and Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. If Williams and Nowitzki keep turning in vintage performances like this, they could challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
The Jazz, on the other hand, will need a miracle to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. The loss put them even with the Houston Rockets -- who picked up an easy 129-105 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday -- in the standings at 40-41, but the Rockets hold the tiebreaker over Utah. The Jazz face Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in his final NBA game in Los Angeles on Wednesday while the Rockets take on the Sacramento Kings.
The Jazz hung around for stretches against the Mavericks on Monday in a must-win game, but they couldn't capitalize on open shots from the corner and Dallas ended up being too much.
It didn't help that Rudy Gobert went down in the second quarter with a sprained ankle and didn't return. Williams had 16 in the second, but the Jazz stayed close -- they trailed 50-46 at the half. The Mavericks lead grew to 12 in the third behind some vintage Nowitzki shooting, but the Jazz didn't budge. They fought back with a 10-0 run and looked poised to take the lead, but the Mavericks had an answer all night. A Matthews desperation three helped the Mavericks to a 71-64 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Jazz couldn't buy a bucket early in the fourth quarter and the Mavericks extended their lead to 11 with 8:02 to play. They held on down the stretch to clinch the playoff spot.
Gordon Hayward started 0-of-8 from behind the arc and missed some great looks from the corner. He ended the night with 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting, but now the Jazz are a Rockets win away from being on the outside looking in.
2 other things
The Cleveland Cavaliers are ready for the postseason
After the Atlanta Hawks jumped out to a 10-0 lead to begin the game, the Cavaliers outclassed the Hawks the rest of the way. They took a six-point lead into the half and coasted to an easy 109-94 win to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East behind a big game from Kyrie Irving -- a game Irving needed. He had 35 points on 14-of-28 shooting from the field as he made 4-of-8 from deep against the Hawks, having his way against a defense that was giving him the mid-range jumper. The big shooting night couldn't have come sooner. In the six games prior to Monday, he was shooting only 37 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from behind the arc.
One thing does remain clear, still: This is LeBron James' team. While Irving was wowing with his offensive prowess, James was a ridiculous 13-of-16 from the field on his way to 34 points, six rebounds and six assists. Irving playing great is key if the Cavaliers are going to make it to the NBA Finals again, but James is going to be the one who leads them.
The Charlotte Hornets aren't giving up on home-court advantage in the East just yet
The race for East seeding is still a jumbled mess. The Hornets beat the Boston Celtics on the road, 114-100, to move to 47-34, which ties them with the Celtics (who have the tiebreaker) and puts them a half-game behind the Heat. The Hawks, meanwhile, are only one game up on the Hornets and Celtics and a half-game up on the Heat. The Heat have two games left and the other three have only one. The race for the No. 3-6 seeds isn't going to be sorted out until Wednesday.
The Hornets, to their credit, looked ready to hang with any of the teams in that bunch fighting for home-court advantage. Jeremy Lin had 25 points off the bench as the Hornets outscored the Celtics, 39-13, in the second quarter to put the game away early. Al Jefferson added 16 points and 11 rebounds and the Hornets held Isaiah Thomas to 17 points. The Hornets can run and gun with anyone, even the high-powered Celtics. Sure, there may be a logjam in the East, but it's going to make for some fun first-round matchups.
Play of the night
Seth Curry did his best Stephen Curry impression on Monday. Not only did he have 20 points, he dished out a career-high 15 assists. The other Curry is making a name for himself in the league -- he might play a little more than a few years in the NBA.
3 fun things
Russell Westbrook had a triple-double in the first half. It was his 18th of the year. This might not be exactly "fun," but it's really, really impressive.
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