Mavs focused on finishing games

DALLAS -- The trades of Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams to Eastern Conference teams this week started a false rumor that entered into the conversation about the Dallas Mavericks.

Suddenly, their playoff path -- with two superstars jettisoned -- was much clearer.

Excuse me, but when did a berth in the Western Conference finals go through Denver or Utah? The way things had been shaking out, a first-round meeting against either team was highly possible. If Dallas is who it thinks it is, disposing of the erratic Nuggets or disappointing Jazz that dropped out of the playoff picture Wednesday after the Mavs' 118-99 victory should have been expected, pre- and post-trade.

"It doesn't change the West," owner Mark Cuban said of the blockbuster deals.

The road did and still does roll through San Antonio and Los Angeles.

"Those two teams are still in our conference," center Tyson Chandler astutely stated. "And those are two teams I'm sure we're going to have to see at some point."

The Mavs continued their march to legitimate contender status with a second-half blistering of the shell-shocked and woefully undermanned Jazz. Already without Ronnie Price and Mehmet Okur, the Jazz were informed just before their morning shootaround at American Airlines Center that Williams, their All-Star point guard, had been traded to New Jersey.

Utah put up a good fight, trailing 59-55 at the half, but after a brief surge early in the third quarter, Dallas (41-16) put it away with a barrage of 3-pointers led by Peja Stojakovic (4-of-5). It was the 14th consecutive game in which at least five players scored in double figures for the Mavs. Seven did this time.

Yet, for all the scoring, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle pointed to red flags that keep many skeptical of this team's postseason chances.

"You'll have a lot of guys in double figures," Carlisle said, "when neither team is guarding anybody. That's a fact."

Turnovers and stretches of sloppy play are another concern. The Mavs coughed it up 19 times, eight in the opening quarter as the Jazz seized the early advantage. The turnover count was 21 last week against Sacramento with an average of 16.5 in the past four games.

At least this time the Mavs didn't get trapped in another confounding letdown, an agonizing pattern of blowing leads that Cuban has clearly made a point of emphasis with the coaching staff.

"He's tired of us blowing big leads," Carlisle said. "Our players are tired of it. Our coaches are tired of it. We talked about it the other day in our meeting in Phoenix."

And they did again throughout the second half of the Jazz game, Carlisle said, as the lead grew to 10, then 12 and 13 points, at 86-73, with 1:35 left in the third quarter. Lapses in focus and defense when up big continually get this team in trouble.

"We had certain thresholds in the second half," Carlisle said, "where we came into timeout huddles and had our biggest lead to that point and we talked about it, saying, 'Hey, look, we're up 11, this is our biggest lead to this point, let's build on this, let's not take a step back.' The guys were talking about it, too."

Focus prevailed and the Mavs grew their lead to as many as 21 points and cooled off the Jazz to 43.2 percent in the second half after 47.5 percent in the first.

"We're aware of it and we're going to keep talking about it, keep working at it," Carlisle said of holding leads. "We've also got to make sure we understand what gets us leads, and that's being efficient with the ball and doing a good job defensively."

The Mavs have a stretch of six games upcoming to hone their killer instinct, one Jason Terry says they have, but have to show. They hit the road for three games starting Saturday at Washington, then head to Toronto and Philadelphia before coming home for Indiana and a Memphis team that always causes problems.

Only 19 games remain after that with the first five against the new-look New York Knicks, the Lakers, Portland, Golden State and San Antonio. By the end of the night on March 18 when the Spurs and Mavs exit the AAC, Dallas should know if it truly is a different defensive team and mentally stronger than in years past.

"Sometimes, especially if you're a veteran team like we are, you seem to sometimes coast into a game, which obviously can't happen in the playoffs," Dirk Nowitzki said. "We still seem to turn it on at the right moment, but in the playoffs we have to stay solid. That's something we've got to address, we've [got] to get better. It's a good thing. We know we have some room to improve."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.