At 42 39, the Mavericks now can finish no lower than seventh in the Western Conference, meaning their possible playoff opponents are narrowed to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, although an LA series appears remote at best.
“It’s been a lot of work,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Our guys looked like they were down and out, and we all dug in.
The Mavericks used their experience against the relatively young, unproven Jazz, cheap replica jerseys
who also are struggling to make the playoffs. They also got a visit before the game from Sloan, the coaching great whom Carlisle texted before the game.
“I came by to say hi after Rick texted me,” Sloan said. “It was good to see them.”
Sloan, battling Parkinson’s disease, chatted with Carlisle and Williams, who said it was a joy to see his former coach, even though they parted on less than amicable terms.
“I heard the news about his health and it’s definitely sad,” Williams said. “I got a chance to spend a couple minutes before, and he sounded great and I told him there’s not a tougher man that I know. If anybody can battle through that, he can.”
The Mavericks won their way into the postseason the same way they had put together a six game winning streak that ended Sunday at the Clippers. They used stifling defense and a sensible, slow pace to grind the Jazz into submission.
They led 86 71 with five minutes to play, but the Jazz pared the deficit to 88 80 with 2:42 to go, forcing Carlisle to call a timeout. Wesley Matthews came up with a tough 3 pointer that swished for an 11 point lead, and the Mavericks were able to make enough free throws to wrap up their 15th playoff berth in Nowitzki’s 18 seasons.
His teammates said they saw a look in Nowitzki’s eyes at the start of the game, like he was in no mood to miss the playoffs. He acknowledged he felt great going into the game and wasted no time showing that with 10 first quarter points, setting set a terrific tone for the Mavericks.
“We got some guys who wanted to make the playoffs,” Nowitzki said. “I think not a lot of guys gave us a chance looking at our roster before the season.
“We made the playoffs in a tough West. That’s good. But we’ve been in the playoffs a couple times since the championship, and we’re always a first round exit. So hopefully we’ll keep this momentum and see what happens.”
Asked how tough this regular season journey was, he said: “It’s up there, especially considering some of the injuries we’ve had. It feels good that we have some fighters on this team that playoffs mean something to.”
Williams, who had 23 points and six rebounds, is despised in Utah. He gave them another reason to not care for him Monday.
“It was a playoff game because there was so much at stake,” he said. The booing, he added, “got me going out there. Not only the booing, but the stuff that was being said. It definitely got me going.”
Williams also believed the Jazz’s youth worked against them in what was the biggest game of the season for both teams.
The Mavericks had learned by halftime that, if they were to punch their playoff ticket on Monday, it would have to be with a win against the Jazz. Houston had smashed the Timberwolves in Minnesota earlier in the evening, meaning that the Rockets kept alive their hopes of squeaking into the playoffs.
That’s not the Mavericks’ concern now. They’re in. And while whoever their opponent is will be a beast, it sure beats the alternative.