Opening Tip: For February, Mavs-Grizz is big

Never mind what the calendar says.

This is not a run-of-the-mill game midway through the regular season. The Dallas Mavericks’ visit to Memphis on Wednesday is a game that could loom large in the middle of April, when the Western Conference’s final two or three playoff bids will probably be determined.

“It’s a big game,” Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said. “You don’t really want to say in February it’s a playoff game, but it definitely will be that kind of intensity.”

All it takes is a quick glance at the West standings to figure out what this game might mean a few months from now. At the moment, the Mavs are a game ahead of the Grizzlies in eighth place and even in the loss column. They've both within striking distance of Golden State and Phoenix.

“They’re a motivated team,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’re another motivated team. We’ll lace ‘em up and get ready to go.”

An argument can be made that this game means more for Memphis than it does Dallas. That’s because the Mavs won a couple of home games against the Grizzlies earlier this season, so Dallas can claim the tiebreaker by winning one of its two trips to Memphis.

Just don’t try telling that to the Mavs, who are determined to get back in the playoffs after their 12-year postseason streak was snapped last season.

“All the games are big,” Shawn Marion said.

This is one the Mavs have been anticipating for some time. Nowitzki’s prediction of the Grizzles getting hot once Marc Gasol returned from knee surgery has come true. Memphis has won nine of 11 games with their big man back in the lineup, getting within breath-on-neck distance from the Mavs.

“He’s a huge key to their success,” Nowitzki said of Gasol, who missed one of the Mavs’ wins over the Grizzlies. “They’ve been playing great since he’s been back. They’re a different animal again. They’ve been holding teams to 80s, 90s and that’s how they win games.

“It’s going to be a slugfest. We know that. We’ve got to rebound well. That’s always a big key against them, and it’s going to be a slow-pace, grind-it-out kind of game and we’ll see if we’re ready for it.”

Memphis will be missing point guard Mike Conley, whom Marion calls “the head of the snake” and is sidelined with a sprained ankle. That makes it even more in the Grizzlies’ interest to make this game as gritty and physical as possible.

This is a midseason game with major potential playoff implications. The next Mavs-Grizzlies meeting just might be a win-and-get-in game. It’s scheduled for April 16, the final night of the regular season.

Then again, depending on how the standings shake out, that game might not mean anything. But there’s no doubt about how this one will feel.

“It’s going to be a playoff-type atmosphere,” Nowitzki said. “For sure.”