Mavericks face 15-day defining stretch

DALLAS -- With Dirk Nowitzki finally turning the corner, Jason Kidd at a standstill and the Dallas Mavericks threatening to become the first reigning champion in NBA history not to boast an All-Star, is there any way to know who this team is or even which direction it's headed?

The popular theory was to withhold judgment until the one-third point of the season because of the radical changes to the roster and the lockout-driven condensed schedule. But the one-third point has come and gone with no authoritative ruling to be found, and the halfway marker is quickly approaching.

Eight days ago, a nifty three-game win streak had the Mavs riding high, a season-best six games over .500. Their team game was lauded for scoring while Dirk was slumping.

Then three consecutive losses, including Saturday's blown lead at struggling Cleveland, quickly dimmed excitement levels and prompted team leaders Nowitzki and Jason Terry to openly pine for the return of their injured 38-year-old point guard, who is nursing his second injury of the season.

And so here we are at the end of a rare three-day respite with so few answers to so many questions about this team.

"I definitely didn't think we were going to lose in Cleveland," said Nowitzki, who ironically is coming off his best two-game scoring run of the season, yet the team couldn't crack 90 and lost both. "I was going to think we were going to win either OKC or Indy, but we lost those two. So it is what it is."

What is next is one heck of a 15-day, nine-game schedule leading up to the All-Star break that features only one opponent, the Jeremy Lin-revived New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, with a losing record. If ever there was a two-week stretch that could define the direction of a team, this is it.

At least that's how the veteran Terry sees it.

"When we look back at the end of the season, we're going to say this is what defined our season," Terry said. "The way the schedule is set, this [time] before the All-Star break is going to define what this team really is made of."

That is a bold statement and, frankly, perhaps too bold considering the consequences of this strange season that has already seemed to have taken on several life forms.

Certainly, a prolonged losing skid would put a lot of pressure on a team with high-mileage wheels to dig out of a hole just to make the playoffs. Conversely, a nice run through these nine games could serve as a significant confidence boost for a club that will -- assuming good health moving forward -- finally be at full strength whenever Kidd's rehabbing right calf is ready for action.

Through 25 games, the Mavs, 14-11, have played 15 without a full lineup, and in five of those, they were missing multiple players sidelined with various ailments and/or illnesses. Six starters and/or rotation players have missed at least one game.

"But, I think if you look at the league, even though we've lost a bunch, we're still right there because all the good teams, there's so many games, they're losing games they're supposed to win," Nowitzki said. "It just happens that way. When you've got five, six games a week, there's going to be some games you lose. That's really the only good thing about this three-game losing streak we've got. We're still right there, but we know we've got to pick it up and play better."

There's no better example than Wednesday's opponent, the Denver Nuggets. It seems eons ago when the Nuggets, one of the league's younger, deeper and more athletic teams, blew the doors off the Mavs in Dallas on Dec. 26 and the defending champs were ruled DOA.

Suddenly, the Nuggets are limping, physically with injuries and in the standings, losers of five of six and three in a row after winning six in a row, and now they must forge ahead without injured forward and leading scorer Danilo Gallinari.

"We are a better team," Terry said of the Mavs today as compared to the team after the 115-93 Denver stomping. "Are we playing that way now? No. So something's got to give."

Friday's opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who already own two lopsided victories over the Mavs, have been the walking wounded all season, yet are one of 11 teams legitimately contending for eight playoff spots and sit just one game behind Dallas and three other teams with identical records.

Attrition is the name of the game in this truncated season. Coach Rick Carlisle has played it that way from the start, employing a deep bench without the constraints of a set rotation to limit minutes to his heavy hitters to keep his squad as rested and as healthy -- which has proved difficult -- as possible to make a postseason run. Just get in is the plan.

Only the reality now is that the postseason is not a rite of passage for these remodeled reigning champs any more than an 11th consecutive All-Star appearance is being gift-wrapped for Nowitzki.

The number of wins and losses the Mavs collect over the next 15 days will be important, but not nearly as much as the number of bodies that emerge from it healthy and ready to sprint to the finish line.

"Yeah, it's a tough challenge, but I think it's doable," Nowitzki said. "I think we're going to try to stay healthy, and we've got to get J-Kidd back; we know that. But our bench has got to come in and play well for us and give us some rest in big games here and there. That's how we're going to come through it."

Let the games resume.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.