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Medically challenged Mavericks still have to earn their way in

LOS ANGELES -- The Dallas Mavericks have encountered plenty of potholes during their path to the playoffs. Of course, the final step isn’t going to be smooth.

“We’ve got to earn our way in,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We knew that coming into this, and that’s the way it should be.”

That didn’t happen Sunday, when the Mavs’ six-game winning streak was snapped with a 98-91 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.

If there was a silver lining to the loss, other than point guard Deron Williams' return after an eight-game absence due to a sports hernia, it was that the third quarter was such a disaster that the Dallas starters hardly played in the final frame. Shooting guard Wesley Matthews' 31 minutes were the most among the Mavs.

As a result, Dallas will be relatively fresh for Monday night’s road game against the Utah Jazz, who are a spot below and a game behind the seventh-place Mavs in the West standings.

“I’m pissed off,” Matthews said after a 7-point outing. “I got plenty of gas left. We all should be, too. Everybody should have plenty of gas. We ain’t guaranteed. We’re not just going to sit on our hands and hope Houston loses. We’re going to go take a game.”

The Mavs’ magic number remains one, and they aren’t counting on it to come from a Rockets loss. Houston has two lottery teams left on its schedule, so the Mavs assume they’ll have to punch their own playoff tickets.

The mystery for the Mavs is exactly who they’ll have available to face the Jazz, particularly among their point guards.

“We’re heavily dependent on our training and medical staff to try to hold us together,” Carlisle said.

Williams was surprisingly effective against the Clippers coming off an eight-game layoff, scoring 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 29 minutes. Carlisle called Williams’ status for the second game of the back-to-back an hour-to-hour situation.

“I feel OK,” said Williams, who understood that he was going to have to tolerate significant pain to play. “It’s something I’m pretty much just going to have to deal with for the most part, but I feel pretty good.”

Barea said his groin felt much better than when he strained it Friday night, interrupting what had been the most productive stretch of his 10-year career. His status against the Jazz could come down to a game-time decision.

“I’m going to do everything I can to play,” Barea said. “I’ll talk to the trainers and we’ll make a decision after we see how I feel tomorrow.”

The Mavs sorely missed Barea, the reigning Western Conference player of the week, on Sunday. They certainly could have used his ability to create during a hideous third quarter, when the Mavs were outscored by 15 points and had more than twice as many turnovers (7) as buckets (3-of-18 from the floor).

The loss greatly reduced the odds that the Mavs will return to Lob City to meet the Clippers in the first round. The five seed is still a possibility for the Mavs, but they need help again to finish that high. The Portland Trail Blazers can claim it by beating the Denver Nuggets on the last day of the regular season.

If the Mavs win out, beating the Jazz and whatever version of the San Antonio Spurs shows up for the regular-season finale, the sixth seed is the most likely scenario. That’s assuming the injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies, who have lost 12 of their last 15, don’t win the last two games on their schedule.

If the Mavs split their last two games, they'll likely land in seventh or eighth and have to face the Spurs or Golden State Warriors in the first round. Or if Houston loses one of its last two.

But it’s not like the Mavs are focusing on who they will face in the first round. They just want to make the playoffs at this point.

“It’s kind of hard to wish for an opponent,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “It’s not like we beat any of them up there. We’re 0-4 against OKC, we haven’t beaten Golden State [with Stephen Curry], we haven’t beaten San Antonio. We’ve got to get to the playoffs. That’s what we’ve got to worry about.”