Dirk: It's getting tighter behind us

DALLAS -- It’s not going to be easy to claim a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

That comes as no surprise to the Dallas Mavericks, whose 12-year postseason streak was snapped last season, but it’s been confirmed this month.

The Mavs are in the same spot in the West standings as when they toasted the New Year, sitting in eighth place. But the fit has gotten a bit tighter in the last four weeks.

At the start of the month, none of the teams below the Mavs was at .500 or above. Dallas (18-13 at the time) had a 3.5-game cushion on the ninth-place Minnesota Timberwolves.

Now, three teams below Dallas are .500 or better and within three games of the 26-20 Mavs entering Tuesday night’s action.

"We need some wins,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “We haven’t really put a nice little win streak together to get some separation down there. It’s getting tighter and tighter behind us. We know that. Memphis is really playing well now and Denver obviously, so we need this homestand to really get some momentum again and get some wins together.”

The Memphis Grizzlies, who advanced to the conference finals last season, are one of the league’s hottest teams. Memphis is 9-3 in January and has won five of six games since center Marc Gasol’s return from knee surgery, including a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a home-and-home sweep of the Houston Rockets last week.

Suddenly, the Grizzlies, who had fallen as far as five games below .500, are even with the Mavs in the loss column and only a couple of games back in the standings at 22-20.

The Denver Nuggets are 22-21 -- and have won both of their meetings against the Mavs -- and the Minnesota Timberwolves are 22-22.

“I said it all along that Memphis was going to make a run once Gasol was back,” Nowitzki said. “They’re so good defensively with their length. I just knew they were going to make a run.

“Minnesota seemed a bit inconsistent. They have some great outings and then they lose a couple, just like we did lately. But I said it all along, it’s going to come all the way down to the last couple of games. It always has in the West. I mean, as bad of a season as we had last year, with like a week left in the season, we still had a shot to make the playoffs. Just got to keep on working, keep on improving.”

The Mavs, who are only three games behind the fifth-place Rockets at the moment, are well aware that the objects in their rearview mirror are getting much closer. They also know that staring at the standings won’t help them create any separation.

“There’s some teams getting healthier, some teams just playing better,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “That can’t be our concern. We’ve got to concern ourselves with what we control, which is our game, how we play and whoever our next opponent is. That’s where I’m directing our focus.”