- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When Dirk Nowitzki tumbled awkwardly to the floor Sunday, the playoff hopes of a franchise already losing ground in the Western Conference may have fallen with him.

The Dallas Mavericks never have been quite right since last season’s playoffs, when they entered the opening round as the West’s No. 1 seed before getting upset by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors.

Dallas has spent much of this season trying to keep up with the Spurs, Lakers, Suns and Hornets. At 44-26 the Mavericks would be good enough for third place in the Eastern Conference, but they have been on the outside of the upper echelon in the West.

In an attempt to bring in a much-needed leader and also give themselves a boost on the floor, the Mavericks completed a trade with the Nets for Jason Kidd.

But Kidd has struggled individually. After averaging 11.3 points, 10.3 assists and 8.0 rebounds in New Jersey, Kidd is recording 8.4 points, 9.3 assists and 6.4 rebounds for the Mavericks.

And since the addition of Kidd, Dallas has gone 9-7. After Sunday’s defeat, the Mavericks have lost three in a row.

Nowitzki’s injuries, which occurred in an 88-81 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, reportedly are a high-ankle sprain and mild knee sprain. But he is out indefinitely. With only three weeks left in the schedule and with the Western Conference so competitive this season, the Mavericks could find themselves on the outside of the playoff race.

In the Western Conference, as the Houston Rockets have shown, teams can rapidly move up or dramatically tumble in the rankings. After soaring to the top spot last week with a 22-game winning streak, the Rockets have lost three of their last four and dropped to fifth in the West.

With Nowitzki out, the Mavericks lose 23.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Kidd must rediscover his Hall of Fame touch, and teammate Josh Howard, who is the team’s second-leading scorer with 19.5 points, needs to pick up the slack.

With Sunday’s loss, Dallas fell to seventh in the West. Only eight teams make the playoffs. The eighth-place team is Golden State with a 43-26 record. And just behind the Warriors is Denver, which is led by the high-scoring tandem of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.

Both teams are 6-4 in their last 10, and both get a chance to take a few shots at the Mavericks.

Dallas plays Denver on Thursday and Golden State twice in the following week before facing the Lakers.

The Nuggets are on pace to win 50 games, and they could become the first team to win that many and not make the playoffs.

They have an bigger window of opportunity now.

There is a chance Dirk’s injury could be less severe than it first seemed and he will be back sooner, but until then his teammates must battle.

The Mavericks have a veteran roster that includes Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Devean George and Eddie Jones. But only Stackhouse is averaging double digits among that group. All of the above need to step up.

Kidd’s leadership is even more vital as the team tries to remain afloat.

If they didn’t already have a sense of urgency, the Mavericks certainly do now. And if they can’t get it together and Denver and Golden State overtake them, it will mark the first time since 2000 that Dallas has not made the playoffs.

THE BUZZ

UP — WIZARDS

Winners of six of their last seven, they move into fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

DOWN — ROCKETS

Losers of three of their last four, they go from first in the West to fifth in a week.

UP — IVERSON

The 12-year veteran averages 31.3 points in his last three games for the Nuggets.

DOWN — KIDD

Since the trade, he has gone from averaging 11.3 ppg, 10.4 apg and 8.1 rpg to 8.4 ppg, 9.3 apg and 6.4 rpg.

POWER RANKINGS

Mike Jones ranks the top 10 NBA teams (last week in parentheses):

1. Celtics (2)

The PGA Tour completes its Texas Three-step with wins over the Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks in the same week.

2. Hornets (6)

New Orleans reclaims first place in the West after a week that included wins over Houston and Boston.

3. Lakers (3)

They keep Utah from posting a franchise best 20th straight home win but later lose to Golden State at home.

4. Suns (8)

Phoenix extends its winning streak to seven games and takes over third place in the Western Conference.

5. Pistons (4)

Detroit is still comfortably under the radar and second in the East despite two straight losses.

6. Jazz (5)

Utah has won seven of its last 10 games and sits in fourth in the West.

7. Spurs (7)

San Antonio rebounds from a home loss to Boston with three straight victories.

8. Rockets (1)

The music stops for Houston, which suffers losses to Boston, New Orleans and Phoenix.

9. Magic (9)

Orlando drops games against Washington and Atlanta, two teams below it in the East.

10. Warriors ()

Golden State continues to lead the league in scoring with 110.9 points a game.

MVP Race

1. LeBron James (Cleveland) — LBJ23 continues his impressive campaign averaging 30.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists.

2. Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers) — Kobe is a close second with 28.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.3 apg.

3. Chris Paul (New Orleans) — Leading the league with 2.7 steals a game, he’s tied for first in assists (11.2 a game) while averaging 21.5 points.

ROY Race

1. Al Horford (Atlanta) — Mr. Consistent (9.8 points and 9.8 rebounds) appears poised to help the Hawks reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

2. Luis Scola (Houston) — The Argentine forward continues his strong play in the second half of the season, averaging 12.7 points and 8.0 rebounds since becoming a starter 14 games ago.

3. Kevin Durant (Seattle) — The swingman continues to lead all rookies with 19.6 points, but his Sonics are on an 0-11 slide.

BY THE NUMBERS

19 Consecutive home wins for the Utah Jazz, who had their run ended last week by the Lakers.

11 Consecutive games in which the Denver Nuggets have topped 100 points.

QUOTABLE

“Typical Gilbert. He had to go get a jacket. He likes to give you guys stories, and you fall for it every time.”

— Wizards coach Eddie Jordan on Gilbert Arenas, who stormed out of the locker room saying he wasn’t coming back this season only to return to sit and cheer on the bench

GAMES TO WATCH

Phoenix AT Boston Tomorrow, 7 p.m. ESPN

Kevin Garnett (18.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and the Celtics face Amare Stoudemire (24.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and the Suns.

Cleveland AT Detroit Saturday, 7:30 p.m. NBA TV

LeBron James and the Cavaliers aim to defeat the Pistons for the second time in as many weeks.

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