DALLAS -- The crowd at the American Airlines Center held its collective breath as J.J. Barea limped to the locker room midway through the first quarter.
The Dallas Mavericks already were missing a pair of starters, their two primary offensive initiators in Deron Williams and Chandler Parsons. They couldn’t afford to lose the surprising star of their improbable playoff push, right?
Yes, they could for at least one night, when the Mavs took a major step toward punching their postseason ticket with a 103-93 win over the Memphis Grizzlies despite Barea’s early exit due to a strained right groin.
“One guy went down today, the other guys had to pick up the slack,” Devin Harris said. Harris was one of just two ball-handling guards on the Mavs’ roster left standing, both of whom starred in Friday night’s victory.
Granted, the Grizzlies certainly shouldn’t feel any sympathy for the Mavs. After all, Memphis’ season is in a tailspin due to a record-setting injury rash. The Grizzlies have used 28 players, the most in NBA history, and lost 11 of their past 14 games. Jordan Farmar, fresh off a 21-game stint in the Israeli league, is Memphis’ starting point guard. Some guy named Xavier Munford is his backup.
But the Mavs, with all their medical issues, somehow are playing their best basketball of the season. And Barea had been a big part of it, carrying the offense during five straight wins entering Friday night, averaging 24.2 points and seven assists during that span.
Raymond Felton and Harris just grabbed the baton from Barea when the “tough, little rascal” -- Felton’s term for the sub-6-footer -- was pulled from the game for good following a brief attempt to play through the pain in the second quarter.
In large part due to the point guards’ performances, the Mavs’ magic number is down to one. One more Dallas win or Houston loss clinches a playoff spot for the Mavs. And the No. 6 seed is suddenly well within the Mavs’ reach, as they pulled within a game of the sliding Grizzlies in the West standings and claimed the series tiebreaker.
Harris starred in the key spurt of the game, scoring 11 of his 16 points during a 14-6 run to close the third quarter, when the Mavs took the lead for good.
Felton’s performance wasn’t pretty, but it certainly was effective. He was only 3-of-12 from the floor, but he stuffed the box score with 11 points, six rebounds, a season-high 14 assists and two steals in 36 minutes.
“He’s a fighter in there,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who broke out of a mini-slump with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting. “He’s been big for us either starting or off the bench. Whatever role he’s got, he’s excelled.”
The most important stat for Felton: The Mavs outscored the Grizzlies by 16 with him on the floor. Only shooting guard Wesley Matthews (plus-18 in 44 minutes) had a better plus-minus Friday night.
“You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Felton, who still is dealing with his own groin injury that caused him to miss a game last week, and took a painful knee to the thigh during the second half Friday. “We’re all in this together. A guy goes down, next guy up.
“You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win. We’re all in this dogfight together, fighting to make the playoffs, which we’ve put ourselves in a great situation now. But we’ve still got to continue to win games, no matter what.”
It remains to be seen when Barea will be back in the fight. Coach Rick Carlisle said Barea’s groin strain was “hopefully not serious” but did not have a timetable for his return.
The Mavs know that Parsons, who underwent surgery to address a torn meniscus in his right knee, is out for the season. They haven’t ruled out the return of Williams, who has a sports hernia, but they definitely aren’t optimistic that he’ll be able to play again this season.
Players up and down the Mavs’ roster continue to respond to the challenge. Barea had been at the forefront of the turnaround following a 2-10 skid. Felton and Harris answered the bell Friday night when Dallas desperately needed them to.
Rookie Justin Anderson, whose addition to the starting lineup helped spark the winning streak, keeps earning the respect of his veteran teammates. He had a career-high 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in Friday’s win.
“Everybody’s had to step up,” Matthews said. “That’s unfortunately the gift and the curse of so many injuries. Everybody’s ready. Everybody’s on edge. Everybody’s wanting to play past April 13.”