Mavs finally stable for playoff push

Dallas Mavericks 2011-12 season, Take 4.

Or something like that.

It's getting difficult to remember just how many new beginnings this very odd season has had.

Tuesday night's 110-100 win over the Sacramento Kings jump-started this thing yet again and, for the sake of the defending champs, it better be the last time or there won't be a postseason title defense for the first time since 1999, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were no longer Bulls.

This newest restart is the most significant one for obvious reasons. First, Lamar Odom is gone. Whether he sucked the life out of his team or was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat, Odom is probably back in Los Angeles by now experimenting with a new line of unisex cologne.

Second, Jason Kidd returned from his third injury of the season, and after a four-game hiatus in which the Dallas offense wheezed to a 1-3 record, he didn't show any signs that the right groin he says has nagged him all season caused much discomfort, if any at all.

The next stretch of four games in five nights, starting tonight at Golden State, will test the 39-year-old's ability to remain healthy with the Mavs' playoff hopes practically depending on it.

"He's gone," guard Jason Terry said of Odom on Tuesday night. "But our biggest difference is that Jason Kidd is back. When you have your leader, your point guard, I think that's more what we're looking at with the feel of everything around here. With him out there on the court, it just makes everything run a lot smoother."

Not that the win over the Kings was a work of art. The Mavs committed 17 turnovers and couldn't shake a squad with five road wins until the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.

"We played all right," Shawn Marion said. "Right now the most important thing for us is to get W's. Everything else will take care of itself. We'll figure it out along the way."

Last year's champions figured it out in the first round against Portland after the potentially devastating Game 4 loss. Instead of folding, the Mavs ascended, providing tremendous lessons in professionalism, teamwork and leadership all the way to claiming the franchise's first champions.

This edition, lacking key members of the title team, has never truly stopped adjusting on the fly because of a string of injuries, from Kidd's back spasms at San Antonio to Dirk Nowitzki's four-game break to train behind the scenes.

It's only now, with eight games remaining, that they find themselves at their most stable. The roster is set. There are no major injuries. Roles will become more defined in the last two weeks of regular-season games.

It is time for the lessons from last season to be applied to this season, to prevent the ever-present discussion of Deron Williams' defecting from a Russian billionaire's team to his American counterpart's from prematurely becoming the only discussion left.

"It's a time of year where it's good pressure," coach Rick Carlisle said. "It's the kind of pressure you want. It's the kind of pressure that helps you elevate to a higher level, and we've got to embrace it. We know that time is short, every game is critical, but we don't ever look at each game ahead of us in a result way. It's all process. It's how we approach it, it's how we play each minute. That's what we're going to do."

The season is now in the hands of Kidd, Terry, Nowitzki, Marion and Carlisle -- the backbone of the team that won the ring and the coach who pushed all the right buttons.

They know what it takes to lift their level of play to championship form and to look and act like a champion. Losing tonight to the Warriors or Friday at Portland, a team with a 33-year-old interim coach and a makeshift roster that punked Dallas on its home floor just last week, won't be acceptable. Not with the Lakers waiting for a nationally televised game Sunday and a desperate Utah Jazz team whose building will hit playoff decibels awaiting on Monday.

Early losses on this trip would only feed into the perception for much this season that this collection of players either never believed it could reach another gear or perhaps never actually wanted to put in the exhaustive effort to try.

It is a team that is only .500 since Feb. 1 and 11-13 since the All-Star break.

"In the playoffs, everything is fresh," Nowitzki said. "Hopefully we can gain some momentum, and then anything is possible. The West is wide open."

It most certainly is, and that's the exciting part if the Mavs can quickly orchestrate an offense that again passes the ball better than any in the game and falls back on its proven defensive principles.

But, of course, Nowitzki added one crucial caveat.

"First," he said, "we've got to make it."