DALLAS — First team to 16 wins…
“The first one to 16 will have a pretty nice piece for their jewelry cabinet,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said while addressing reporters Thursday afternoon at American Airlines Center.
Carlisle was alluding to the 16 teams that have punched tickets to this year’s NBA playoffs, a nearly two-month-long marathon that will culminate with one franchise hoisting the covenant Larry O’Brien trophy.
Now in his seventh season as the Mavericks’ head man, arguably Carlisle’s most memorable campaign as an NBA coach came four years ago when he led Dallas to its first world championship in franchise history, a six-game upset of the Miami Heat in their best-of-7 NBA Finals series.
That year, three teams from the NBA’s Southwest Division (Dallas, San Antonio, and Memphis) had clinched playoff berths.
This year, however, each of the division’s five teams have advanced to the postseason, a feat that was effectively decided on the regular season’s final day when the New Orleans Pelicans clinched a berth with a 108-103 win against the Spurs.
“I think this is the toughest division in all of (professional) sports,” Carlisle said. “It has been for the last several years.”
Among the reasons is the Spurs (55-27) undoubtedly have been the division’s most consistent and dominant team. Making their franchise-best 18 consecutive postseason appearance when they open defense of their NBA title Sunday night at the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers (56-26), the six-seeded Spurs have won five world titles during this stretch.
As for the Mavs, erasing the memory of last year’s seven-game opening-round defeat to San Antonio certainly will be a brutal task, considering seventh-seeded Dallas (50-32) will face the No. 2 seed Houston Rockets Saturday at 8:30 p.m. CST in Game 1 of their best-of-7 opening-round series.
The Rockets (56-26) are led by NBA Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden, the league’s second-leading scorer.
Winners of three straight, the Rockets are in the postseason for a third consecutive year. Dallas is making its second straight playoff appearance.
The fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (55-27), whose 9-7 division record was the best among the other four teams, is making their franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff appearance and will open postseason play Sunday night at 7 CST against the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) in FedExForum.
Memphis’ best postseason outing during this span took place two years ago when the Grizzlies manufactured their highest winning percentage and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history.
Arguably the surprise Southwest Division team to make the playoffs is New Orleans.
The NBA’s fourth youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years, the Pelicans (45-37) played arguably their most complete game of the season, which couldn’t have come at a better time, considering New Orleans controlled its own destiny.
Led by Anthony Davis’ 31 points and 13 rebounds, the Pelicans withstood a furious late rally by the defending champs to solidify the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot in the regular season finale, thus ending a four-year postseason drought.
Next up for upset-minded Pelicans is an opening-round date with the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, starting with Saturday’s Game 1 at 2:30 p.m. CST.
Led by Stephen Curry, whom many consider the frontrunner for league MVP, the high-octane Warriors enter the postseason with the NBA’s best record at 67-15.
Come Saturday, the race to 16 wins begins.
Which, of course, begs the question: Will the Larry O’Brien trophy remain in the Southwest Division for a second consecutive year?
As far as Carlisle is concerned, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if it does.
“It’s just quality teams from top to bottom,” Carlisle said of the Southwest Division. “During the battles of the division opponents during the year, I mean those were slugfest games. They were extremely meaningful. There’s a lot of wear and tear. (Games) were very physical. They’re emotional. But when you get a division like this, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and it gets everybody primed for this time of year.”
Let the nearly two-month-long marathon begin.
First team to 16 wins…
Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.