PORTLAND, Ore. — A wise man once said that the only meaningful messages sent in the NBA during December come on Christmas cards.
But Charles Barkley also knew that when the calendar flipped to February, the stakes went up.
That’s where the Mavericks are, starting Friday night against the Blazers.
With a three-game winning streak — and actually, all it took was Wednesday’s win over Philadelphia — the Mavericks have leaped from 13th in the Western Conference into a tie for 10th entering Thursday’s games. That’s just 2 1/2 games behind Portland, which owns the eighth and final playoff spot at the moment.
That alone makes this an important game. The winner also will take a 2-1 lead in the season series with a game left in Dallas on Tuesday. If either team sweeps these two games, it could come in handy come tiebreaker time.
For now, the Mavericks will be trying to win their fourth consecutive game for the first time this season.
This will be the Mavericks’ 50th game of the season. Only 32 remain after this and they will go by fast. What they have done by winning eight of their last 11 is put themselves in position to play meaningful games if they are serious about making a run at the last playoff spot. Going any higher than eighth is little more than a dream.
“We’re not looking that far ahead,” Wesley Matthews said. “I know other people are. But we’re not. If we just do what we need to do and keep taking care of what we can take care of, the rest will work out.”
The Mavericks have been fighting back from their 2-13 start to this season for more than two months. They have played .500 since (17-17), and they will have to be better than that in a relatively soft month of February if they want to put lottery talk on the back burner.
Denver, Sacramento and Portland have occupied that No. 8 spot in the West at times over the last couple months. The Mavericks are within range, and the way they are playing lately should be sending messages through the lower half of the West standings. They have withstood injuries to Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams and J.J. Barea, all of whom are likely to miss the Portland game, although Williams is listed as doubtful.
With those absentees, the Mavericks have mixed and matched lineups with a lot of success.
“We’ve been tinkering all year with this whole lineup,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve really been all over the map in looking at things.
“It’s been a nonstop deal. Right now, we’ve got to take the guys we have available, maximize what they can do out there together and try to get these other guys healed up. There’s no substitute for having good healthy veterans.”
But players like Seth Curry have eased the manpower shortage. He’s been the backcourt scoring threat in Williams’ place. And the Mavericks have ham-and-egged it pretty well. Every game, it seems like somebody new pops up to contribute big efforts.
Against Philly, it was Salah Mejri with 16 points and 17 rebounds. Against Cleveland, Dwight Powell had 14 points and eight rebounds. In San Antonio, Curry had 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Plus, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews have been consistent throughout.
Ready to lift off: Justin Anderson has taken advantage of garbage time in recent games, like Wednesday when he had seven points and four rebounds in less than five minutes against the Sixers.
Taking the end of blowout games seriously goes a long way with Carlisle, who is juggling a dozen healthy players who all want time on the court.
“He’s ready,” Carlisle said of Anderson. “The reality is in a rotation, you can go 10-deep in this league. Some nights you might go 11 deep. But it’s more or less a nine-man league.”
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