(AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)

So you thought the Dallas Mavericks were going to stumble into the playoffs by default, becoming a short-lived 8th seeded passenger? Think again. After effectively terminating the Suns playoff hopes with a 24-point slaughtering on Sunday, the Mavs tonight completely dismantled a Utah team fighting to stay ahead of them in the rankings. A Utah team most people agree are a legitimate threat to go deep into the playoffs. Instead there is now a fierce duel at hand, the loser to face the unenviable prospect of a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers – in other words, a death sentence.

Despite what eventuates, watching the Mavericks tonight convinced me they will not be merely playoff fodder. In short, they looked awesome. With the American Airlines Center going absolutely nuts at the prospect of sealing a playoff birth, the Mavs turned in what was simply one of their best performances of the season. Having got back from the game barely an hour ago, here are my impressions.

Dirk Nowitzki was as usual, unstoppable, but seeing him for the first time in person was something else. What I find remarkable about Dirk is that he’s not exactly the quickest cat – his shot release is quite slow and methodical. But even when the defender knows it’s coming there is absolutely nothing he can do. Dirk’s shot is, by definition, unstoppable. With the way he rocks back to create space and the height he releases it from, the defender really is at Dirk’s mercy. Sheed is the only other guy who has a similarly undefendable release, but he doesn’t do it 10-15 times a game like Dirk does. In the third quarter Dirk nailed four straight shots that all but killed off the Jazz, and there was nothing Utah could do about it.

Jason Terry has to be the 6th Man of the league. Has to. There’s a big campaign in Dallas to get “Jet” the recognition he deserves, and watching him tonight he completely convinced me. His two threes late in the first quarter blew out the lead and the Mavs never looked back. Terry shot 8-16 for 21 points in 29 minutes, but his influence goes beyond the stat sheet. Terry is the Energizer Bunny for this Dallas team – he pumps up the crowd, goes crazy on the sidelines and always plays at breakneck pace. Dirk said himself, “I’m really not sure where we would be without Jason… Every time he shoots I think it is going in. He is having a phenomenal season”.

And how bout my man Jose Barea? (aka “Puerto Rican Guy” and featuring in our Wall of Fame). I was pumped to see JJ and he didn’t let me down – he was arguably player of the game. If Jason Terry is 6th man of the season, Barea might 7th man. Right now he is running that offense so effectively and scoring so easily, that Rick Carlisle is forced to play him alongside Kidd on the floor. You’d think this makes the Mavs a little exposed and undersized, but Barea is simply playing too well right now – the Mavs even ran with Barea-Kidd-Terry for some time and absolutely killed the Jazz while doing it.

I can’t say enough good things about the Mavs performance tonight. Dampier did an excellent job on the offensive boards, Josh Howard was everywhere (he finished with 7 steals) and Singleton really impressed me with his athleticism and hustle. This didn’t look like a team who was floundering in 8th position in the Conference. It looked like a team full of confidence with almost everyone playing at their peak. I won’t draw too many conclusions based on one game, but if the Mavs sneak into 7th spot and manage to avoid the Lakers, they can go as far as any other West team in these playoffs. Remember that apart from the Spurs, this Mavs team is probably the most experienced playoff team out West. If the match ups go their way they could do damage. (I know I know, we seem to be saying that about every West team in these playoffs. Difference is that Dallas had the least expectations out of all of them – at least until tonight. Spurs are now looking vulnerable without Manu, while New Orleans and Utah seem to be stumbling late. In order of best to worst form in the West right now, I go 1) LA, 2) Denver, 3) Portland , 4) Houston, 5) Dallas, 6) New Orleans, 7) San Antonio, 8 ) Utah… with two games against NOH and a game against Houston to come, there is every chance Dallas could climb higher)

As for the Jazz? They are all too aware of their current inability to get it done on the road, and the immense pressure on them to avoid the 8th seed. I spoke to Deron Williams and Matt Harpring before the game, they gave me the usual “one game at a time” cliches, but when I asked Matt if he was keeping an eye on the box-scores of the other Western playoff teams, he smirked, “Sure we do.. we know it’s a tight race. We need to win every game we can”. After this loss, that race got a whole lot tighter.

Other notes from this game:

  • I caught a glimpse of Mark Cuban doing his usual pre-game StairMaster routine in the Mavs locker room. The guy looks fit.
  • Gerald Green ate a plate full of chicken parmigiana and lasagne 90 minutes before the game – knowing this, I will now readjust my routine for Thursday night basketball.
  • Head over to Mavs Moneyball for all the post-game quotes.
  • I saw Kyrylo Fesenko for the first time in the Jazz locker room and I thought it was Andre the Giant. He is a big scary dude. Once he retires I’m pretty sure he’ll have a career waiting for him as a villain in James Bond movies.
  • One of the coolest things about tonight was that I got to meet Deron Williams and see him play. This guy has been in my Fave Top 5 for a few years now, and it seems like he’s only taking on more and more responsibility for this Jazz team. While Boozer struggles to get back to his peak form, the Jazz were too reliant on DW tonight and he was forced to bail his team out on too many occasions (that’s the real reason Deron shot 5-14, he wasn’t shooting badly, they were just really tough, forced shots). In fact, watching the Jazz tonight felt like watching a one-man team, which is weird because Utah Jazz basketball is supposed to represent everything BUT a one-man show. I’ve been one of the people telling everyone to “watch out for Utah” in these playoffs, but seeing them tonight didn’t exactly make me wanna put money where my mouth is.
  • I walked past Hubie Brown in the corridor. Highlight of my day.
  • I spoke to a guy writing for a German basketball magazine called Basket. He was telling me that basketball is probably the 4th or 5th biggest sport in Germany, but only because of Dirk. It got me thinking, Australia is probably in a similar situation, in that basketball is probably 4th or 5th and  Bogut is our only “big name”. But Bogut is nowhere near the superstar that Dirk is – no offense to Bogey, but c’mon, Dirk is an MVP. Imagine if Bogut was on Dirk’s level, how big would basketball be in this country? Surely a lot bigger than it is now. Something to ponder…

Tomorrow I’ll add some thoughts on the Yao vs Dwight matchup I watched last night, as well as getting prepped for the big Lakers vs Nuggets game at Staples. Best two teams in the West facing off in April – doesn’t get any better than that!

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