- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks probably aren’t going far assuming they make the playoffs for the 15th time in the smooth-shooting German’s 18 seasons in Dallas.

Still, it says something that Nowitzki’s team is solidly in contention at the All-Star break after DeAndre Jordan’s stunning reversal in free agency seemed to doom Dallas before the difficult Western Conference race even started.

For that, coach Rick Carlisle lists reasons beyond the 37-year-old Nowitzki leading his team in scoring again - the same way he did for more than a decade before a one-year hiatus last season. Here are a few:

- Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews, likely core players after Nowitzki retires , came back sooner than expected from injuries.

- Raymond Felton ended up in the rotation after looking like nothing more than a throw-in from the Tyson Chandler trade with the New York Knicks two summers ago.

- And Zaza Pachulia turned into something more than a consolation prize after Jordan jilted the Mavericks, who return from the break at Orlando on Friday night.

“The state of the team? I like the team,” said Carlisle said. “Who would have thought that Parsons and Matthews would be this far along at this point in the season? Nobody. Who thought Felton would have the kind of year he’s having so far? Nobody.”

Parsons had offseason surgery on a right knee injury that knocked him out after just one game in a first-round playoff loss to Houston, his old team, last April.

Matthews, who got a maximum contract as a free-agent shooting guard when Jordan decided to stay with the Los Angeles Clippers, was ready for the season opener after tearing his left Achilles tendon with Portland against the Mavericks last March.

Both were on playing time restrictions early, and both have had uneven seasons in the process of getting back. And both figure the days of recovery are behind them.

“We have to come out with a fight and an aggression more so because this is a sprint now,” Matthews said. “It’s a sprint and no longer a marathon.”

Things to consider going into the final 27 games for the Mavericks, who are third in the Southwest Division after being a consensus last-place choice following Jordan’s decision:

PLAYOFF POSITIONING

The Mavericks lost to Utah at home in their final game before the break, dropping them to 29-26. They have little chance of getting into the top four, so the goal will be avoiding the seventh and eighth seeds. Those spots would mean a first-round series against one of the heavy favorites in the West, Golden State or San Antonio.

But Dallas also has some interesting challengers, including the Jazz, Houston in a disappointing season after reaching the West finals, and even Matthews’ old team despite the Trail Blazers also losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency to San Antonio.

FELTON FACTOR

The 11th-year guard was an afterthought last season when he came over from the Knicks with Chandler, who has since moved on to Phoenix. But he recently has been on the floor late in close games plenty. His value increases if Devin Harris is slow to come back from an injury to his surgically repaired left big toe.

DOUBLE-DOUBLE MAN

Pachulia came in a trade with Milwaukee after the Jordan decision and has already set a career high in double-doubles. He’s averaging a double-double, which would be a first for the 13th-year player.

DON’T FORGET DERON

The return of Deron Williams to his hometown team was a boost coming off the bad news from Jordan. And the guard with a reputation for being moody and injured in Brooklyn has delivered on the hope, averaging 14.1 points and a team-high 5.4 assists while mostly staying healthy.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

First-round pick Justin Anderson is finally getting a chance to play, and making enough energy plays to stay on the court. Meanwhile, 7-foot-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri is showing a little moxie in some unexpected moments. He had energizing blocks on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to fuel a rally in a loss to Oklahoma City, and appeared to talk trash to the San Antonio bench after a dunk even though the Spurs were blowing out the Mavericks.

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