By SCHUYLER DIXON
AP Sports Writer
DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki finally leads the Dallas Mavericks in scoring again. He has more work to do if he wants to make the playoffs for a 13th straight season.
The 7-foot German passed teammate O.J. Mayo even before getting a season-high 35 and hitting a last-second 3-pointer to complete a stirring rally against Chicago over the weekend.
The Mavericks started winning at a playoff pace once Nowitzki got settled in after missing the first 27 games following the first knee surgery of his career. Their playoff odds still aren’t good going into a critical game tonight at the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the teams they’re chasing, but without a 15-1 run in the final 4 minutes of the 100-98 win over the Bulls, the odds would be even worse.
In other words, they’re a reflection of feisty owner Mark Cuban with their core of four veterans with at least 13 years of NBA experience apiece.
“Nobody gives up. I think we’re all competitors,” Nowitzki said. “Mark … is probably the biggest competitor. You see the tweets with Donald Trump every day. They’re competing over Twitter, those two morons. And obviously the leadership of this team with the older guys. We’ve all obviously got a lot of pride, a lot of fight, and that’s what you’ll be seeing these last couple of weeks.”
Nowitzki said the same thing about the Lakers, who started the season as a good bet to win the Western Conference after putting Dwight Howard and Steve Nash alongside Kobe Bryant. They’ve changed coaches and battled injuries and chemistry issues, and started Monday tied with Utah for the final playoff spot in the West, a game and a half ahead of Dallas (36-37).
Ultimately, the Lakers and Mavericks might be looking up at the Jazz, who have by far the best home record of the three and play five of their next six in Utah. The Mavericks, meanwhile, are starting a four-game trip with stops in playoff-bound Denver, Sacramento and Portland, where Dallas rarely plays well.
“Even if we win (against the Lakers), it doesn’t mean we’re in,” Nowitzki said. “So we’re in a tough situation, but we’re sure as heck going to try.”
At least the Mavericks have Nowitzki in playoff form. He’s averaging 19.9 points per game since the All-Star break, when it was safe to say recovery from knee surgery was behind him, and he’s shooting 63 percent over his past eight games.
He’s had several vintage Nowitzki games in recent weeks — hitting big shots in fourth quarters — but even those at times have been illustrations of Dallas’ up-and-down season. Case in point: the last time the Mavericks played the Lakers. Nowitzki had probably his best game of the year to that point with a season-high 30, but Bryant was just a little better, getting 38 in the Lakers’ 103-99 win.
That was one of many days the Mavericks didn’t figure to have much hope to keep their playoff streak alive.
“We’re not perfect,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “In many ways we’ve embraced our imperfection. And I think in our situation that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Nowitzki still needs help, just as he did when the Mavericks won the title in 2011. Mayo was the go-to guy while Nowitzki sat to start the season, but it didn’t take long for teams to figure that out and make things hard on him.
Plus, Mayo’s never been the top option, so it’s really been a season-long struggle. He’s led the team in scoring just twice in the past 24 games, and now he’s battling a bum shoulder from a collision in last week’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers — the first for Dallas this season against the top four teams in the West standings at the time.
While Nowitzki was making just about everything against the Bulls, Mayo was having his worst shooting day in Dallas. He made one of 13 from the field and finished with four points.
“He’s chomping at the bit to get into the eighth spot,” Mayo said of Nowitzki. “He carries a big load. That’s why we’re here, to help lighten it. We have to be ready to throw punches beside him.”
Vince Carter brings a lot of intangibles off the bench, and some hot 3-point shooting that has been a big boost in some of the wins. But he’s cooled off recently, making just seven of 29 from long range the past six games.
Chris Kaman, one of several newcomers on one-year deals as the Mavericks again chose financial flexibility over a long-term commitment to Nowitzki’s new sidekick, hasn’t been the frontcourt partner for Nowitzki that the Mavericks envisioned. His playing time has fallen way off with the emergence of Brandan Wright, who has his two best scoring games of the season in the past five.
“It’s always a must win for us,” Wright said. “We can’t afford to lose two in a row. We have a big road trip coming up. It’s pretty much going to make or break us.”
The Mavericks looked broken several times, but they still have a chance.