Week ahead: Home slate toughens without Dirk Nowitzki

Before Saturday's big announcement that Dirk Nowitzki will sit out four games while he pursues an overall conditioning program, the week ahead, with four home games and no back-to-backs, seemed like a great opportunity to put some distance between .500 and perhaps even take over the Southwest Division.

Now, with their leading scorer scheduled to miss the first three games of the homestand, the week becomes more about survival than targeting first place.

"We went through this last year when we lost him for nine games," guard Jason Kidd said. "We feel like we have a lot of talent here and we feel like our depth is one of our keys. Everybody just has to step up."

The Mavs went 2-7 without Nowitzki last season, and panic, if only temporarily, seemed to grip the masses. Dallas is 1-0 without Nowitzki after Saturday's 83-81 victory at New Orleans, one that certainly underscored just how difficult it might be for a team already struggling offensively to score points.

Dallas enters tonight's game against the Phoenix Suns ranked 22nd in scoring at 92.8 points a game. Their saving grace is a stubborn defense that will look to add to the franchise record set Saturday of holding 14 consecutive opponents under 100 points. Dallas remains the No. 1 defense in the Western Conference, holding foes to 88.4 points a game, and third in the league behind Chicago and Philadelphia.

"We had to get plenty of minutes from a lot of guys and we needed tough play from top to bottom," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said after Saturday's win. "We actually played 11 [players] and all of them were a factor in the game."

It's the kind of full-roster effort the Mavs will need this week to gain ground. Remember, not only is Nowitzki out, but so is veteran swingman Vince Carter, who was the second-leading scorer off the bench and the team's most accurate 3-point shooter when he sprained his left foot Monday night.

The Mavs enjoyed a much-needed day off Sunday. Here's a look at the challenges of the week ahead:

Tonight: vs. Phoenix Suns (6-9), 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: FSSW/103.3 FM ESPN; 1270 AM (Spanish)

What to watch: Steve Nash's Suns come to Dallas on a bit of hot streak with two consecutive wins. They won at Boston on Friday night and haven't played since, so they should be well rested to give the Dirk-less Mavs a run. This is Phoenix's second trip to Dallas this month, with the Mavs winning fairly easily, 98-89, on Jan. 4. Dirk had 20 in that one and Suns center Marcin Gortat was a load with 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 10 rebounds.

Wednesday: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-9), 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: FSSW/103.3 FM ESPN; 1270 AM (Spanish)

What to watch: This should be a memorable night as the Mavs finally will collect their championship rings during a pregame ceremony. In a classy move, Mavs owner Mark Cuban scheduled it so J.J. Barea could join in the festivities after playing a key role in the championship run in his fifth season in Dallas. Hopefully, Barea will then be able to take the floor in uniform. He's struggled with a hamstring injury and has missed the last two games after trying to return on Jan. 18. He had eight points in the first meeting against his former club, a 99-82 Wolves win. Michael Beasley has been out since Jan. 6 with a sprained ankle and Minnesota is also patiently awaiting the season debuts of Brad Miller and Martell Webster, both of whom have joined practices, but their availability remains uncertain.

Friday: vs. Utah Jazz (10-5), 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: FSSW/103.3 FM ESPN; 1270 AM (Spanish)

What to watch: Last the Mavs saw of the Jazz, Devin Harris was coughing up a career-worst game, Derrick Favors was getting ejected -- and then fined $25,000 by the league for chucking the ball into the second row -- and Dallas pulled out a hard-fought victory at a venue where that's hard to do. The Jazz will want quick payback and they'll smell blood with Nowitzki sitting out what is expected to be his fourth and final game. Utah has played two-thirds of its games at home and is 2-3 on the road. The Jazz have wins at Denver and Golden State but have lost three in a row on the road. They play Toronto at home Wednesday after three days off, so the Jazz should be in fine physical condition. It's uncertain if Josh Howard (strained quad) will be ready. He missed last week's meeting.

Sunday: vs. San Antonio Spurs (10-7), 5:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: FSSW/103.3 FM ESPN; 1270 AM (Spanish)

What to watch: First, note the early start time. Just as the Jazz must be thinking payback, so too must the Mavs when San Antonio makes its first trip north. The Spurs spanked Dallas 93-71 on Jan. 5 with a barrage of 3-pointers. The game was never close and Nowitzki scored just six points. This is expected to be his return to action after a week-long training camp of sorts to get his ailing right knee and his overall body into better game shape. After sitting out four games it will be interesting to see how he fares. Since starting 6-2, the Spurs are 4-5 and continue to play without leading scorer Manu Ginobili (broken hand).