Time for the Mavericks to step it up

DALLAS -- Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban climbed aboard his stair stepper Wednesday night, where he often transforms the worn piece of exercise equipment into a pulpit to preach about the virtues of his basketball team.

Where he earlier this season unconvincingly boasted that the Mavericks' restructured roster is better than the one that raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy 10 months ago, Cuban's most extreme claim before a critical game against the Memphis Grizzlies was that people, 3-to-1, now ask him about Shark Tank over the defending champs.

Maybe that's just because no one knows what to make of the inconsistent, injury-marred Mavs lineup, so they don't even bother.

Interestingly, if they do ask, Cuban, never one to shy from spin, might be out of material.

"Time's running out, isn't it?" Cuban said in a moment of unbridled, jaw-dropping modesty. "But we will see. We will see. Now is the time to do it."

Wednesday's much-needed 95-85 win over the Grizzlies, achieved with a 21-2 gut-check run in the fourth quarter, nudged the Mavs' record since Feb. 1 to one game above .500. As they await the dysfunctional Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, the Mavs sit nearly as close to being out of the playoffs as they do to the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.

"No one likes being a .500 team, but we are," Cuban said. "So I'll go back to what I say every year. I'll do it by reference since you guys are sick of me saying it."

This lockout-shortened season is different, but Cuban's mantra is even more on the mark: Just get in the playoffs, be healthy and go for it.

The health part is awfully tenuous. Jason Kidd is out nursing a groin injury, his third ailment this season. Center Brendan Haywood said his lateral movement remains limited but he's hopeful of ditching the bulky knee brace by the end of the week. Lamar Odom's recent progress was apparently sabotaged by a stomach bug and Delonte West is forced to tape his fragile right ring finger to his middle finger for as long as the Mavs last.

Of course, it didn't stop the street-tough West from going all Cuban after he scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the win over the Grizzlies to allow the Mavs to cling to the No. 6 seed. It was a game that for 38 minutes looked to be shoveling more dirt on top of repeat aspirations.

"This is the NBA, man, but this team is very confident," West said. "We don't get too down, don't get too high. I've been on some good teams in this league and this team definitely has championship swag."

As Cuban said, now would be a good time to show it.

"Am I particularly worried?" Cuban asked rhetorically. "No. But would I rather have a big cushion? Yeah."

Can anyone recall the last time the Mavs were fighting for a playoff spot -- not seeding, but an actual spot -- this late in the season? Not when you're 11 years into 50-something victories.

This isn't a 50-something-win team. At 31-24, the Mavs have to win nine of their last 11 games to win 40 of 66, which is just about the equivalent of winning 50 of 82. Maybe with a full training camp and practice time, Cuban has contended, things might be different. But they're not.

"We've just got to be in good shape when we get there," Cuban said of the postseason, which conveniently comes after a four-day break between the last two regular-season games. "We'll go out there and play the games. I don't think there's any teams that anybody in this locker room is afraid of by a long shot or doesn't think we match up fine with."

So what will the final 11 games reveal about this team? Or did the fourth-quarter rally Wednesday prove the switch can be flipped on championship mettle? Or was it the result of the Grizzlies playing their final quarter in a stretch of five games in six nights and three in a row?

The Mavs fell behind early, 36-26, just as they did Monday against the Clippers.

"You get down 10 early and the way it went Monday, it would have been easy to just let it go off a cliff, but we didn't do that," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We just stayed in there."

With the Mavs it seems sudden doom is always followed by instant optimism and then vice-versa. After the Clips did their thing, it was feared what might become of this important week that includes a final meeting with the Grizzlies in Memphis on Saturday.

Dallas is in position to beat a bad road team in the Blazers, then again take advantage of a weary Grizzlies bunch that will again be playing a fifth game in six nights, and then come home to face Sacramento.

A four-game win streak is a distinct possibility before heading out on next week's four-game trek out west.

Or is that just wishful thinking?

"We've just got to play the games," Cuban said, "and see what happens."