Nov 30, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio (9) and power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (12) defend against Dallas Mavericks shooting guard Monta Ellis (11) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Timberwolves defeated the Mavericks 112-106. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Wolves (33-32) at Mavericks (41-27)

The Dallas Mavericks currently hold a record of 41 wins and 27 losses on the season.

How did that happen? Many prognosticators (myself included) had the Mavs missing the playoffs altogether, while a few thought that they may be able to squeak into the eighth slot with 42-45 wins. Well, they’ve exceeded expectations and will likely win somewhere near 50 games when the 2013-14 campaign is all said and done.

Personally, I was beyond skeptical of the three-year, $25+ million contract that Dallas handed the perpetually inefficient Monta Ellis in the off-season, and the likelihood that he would be able to transform his game to fit the mold of a competent offense. In both Golden State and Milwaukee, Ellis had simply been handed the keys to that end of the floor and told to create. Other than his crazy 2007-08 performance, he was a plainly negative contributor to his teams when he was on the floor.

But the coaching of Rick Carlisle cannot be undersold here. He was able to get a ball-stopper to stop, well, stopping the ball, and buy into a team offensive concept centered around the great Dirk Nowitzki. Carlisle is coaching an aging Dirk, surrounded by an aging Vince Carter,  an aging Shawn Marion, and San Antonio outcast DeJuan Blair.

The unsung hero in the whole bit is the still-under-appreciated Jose Calderon, signed in free agency for a hefty four-years and $29 million. Now, I’m certain that Dallas will regret the length of that deal in two or three years as Calderon’s sub-par defense rapidly deteriorates as he navigates through his age 33-35 seasons, but right now, it’s a boon.

Carlisle’s coaching has been nothing short of magnificent. In the rough and tumble west, teams essentially need two stars, one of which is a superstar, in order to threaten a playoff spot. The Mavericks have Nowitzki, who is still producing at a near-superstar level, and that’s about it in the star category. Calderon is the next closest thing, and Ellis has been good, too. But Mark Cuban and Co. are essentially putting all of their eggs in the Dirk basket one final time by surrounding him with outstanding role players.

Nowitzki is 35 years old, and he’s surrounded by Carter (37), Marion (35), and Calderon (32). Ellis (28), and Blair’s 24-year old, ACL-less knees are the only ones with anything resembling youth that see significant minutes for Carlisle’s crew. This year, and maybe next, are the last hurrahs for Dirk. Cuban has made it clear that he’ll ride Nowitzki into the sunset, but the curious thing is the length of commitment that he’s made to these rotation players.

Clearly, the gamble is that Cuban can woo another top-flight superstar in free agency. Between Nowitzki, Carter, and Marion, the Mavs have more than $35 million coming off the books this summer. The trick is not clogging the cap space with this year’s free agency class, as the summer of 2015 looks to be much shinier and more promising.

As of right now, however, Carlisle will be taking Dirk and his teammates as far as he can manage in the Western Conference playoffs. The Wolves beat Dallas twice, once at home and once on the road, early in the season. There was nearly a third victory, in the infamous and increasingly-painful (given the implications on the standings) OH ED MALLOY! game.

It’s all over but the crying now for the Wolves, and the only chance they have to threaten the 8th spot would indeed be to beat Dallas tonight and win their remaining two games against Memphis and the final contest versus Phoenix.

That won’t happen, but the Wolves generally match-up with Dallas fairly well, and tonight is absolutely a winnable game against a tough opponent.

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