Texas teams hoping to tune up before playoffs

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NBA Notebook

Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs continue to defy the “old” label they are often shouldered with. The Spurs are in second place in the Western Conference and are third in the league in scoring.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

If the NBA season were to end today, every Texas team would have a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. The tried-and-true San Antonio Spurs, young Houston Rockets and reigning champion Dallas Mavericks are all among the top-eight teams in the West, but each is dealing with its own set of issues as the playoffs draw nearer.

Popovich managing Spurs carefully in crunch time

Don’t call them old. Only Gregg Popovich can do that.

Despite officially listing the reason aging star, Tim Duncan, didn’t play against Philadelphia last week is because he’s “old,” Popovich’s squad is doing what it does best — winning. The Spurs were one of the teams that were predicted to falter this season because of the compressed 66-game schedule. However, the Spurs are the West’s second-best team that no one is talking about.

“It’s a little bit more difficult than the normal season,” Popovich said before the game of managing minutes. “We’ve always played our guys less than most teams, so it’s a little bit more emphasis than usual.”

San Antonio is the third best scoring team in the league and it is currently enjoying an eight-game win streak after routing Cleveland 125-90 last night. Popovich has had to strategically divvy minutes among his players to keep veterans like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan off the floor when they don’t need to be there. And the strategy is working. The old-reliable crew has kept its numbers on par with their career statistics and the Spurs continue to cash in wins like they have for the last decade.

Tuesday night kicked off a 16-game-in-23-days stretch to finish the shortened season. As the playoffs draw closer, the second-place Spurs will likely rest their starters more often to keep them fresh for a deep playoff run. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan each played less than 23 minutes Tuesday against the Caveliers, but they still all had +/- ratings above 16.

Rockets trying to stay in rarefied air

As has been the case for the last two seasons, the Houston Rockets are in contention for a low-seed in the playoffs. Currently gasping for air with a one-game lead over the ninth place Utah Jazz, the Rockets are a league anomaly.

The third-best team in the state beat some of the best teams in the league as well as lost to some of the worst. In March, the Rockets beat the Thunder in an improbable come-from-behind victory over the West’s best Oklahoma City Thunder. On Monday, the Rockets beat the East’s best team, the Chicago Bulls. However, they’ve been prone to losing to teams such as Phoenix, Toronto and Minnesota.

Lately, the Rockets have gotten the job done without their best players Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. Lowry should return soon, but he is still dealing with a bacterial infection, while Martin is nursing a right shoulder injury that will see him miss more time.

For Houston to ensure at least the eight seed, it will need to play mentally tough on the road, something it hasn’t done particularly well this season. The Rockets are a 9-17 on the road with seven of their next 12 games being played away from home.

“I never understood that,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said as he tried to explain his team’s road woes. “Baskets are 10 feet high and the court’s 94 feet. I’ve never seen a fan score a point yet.”

Mavericks still searching for that championship swagger

Whatever magic Dallas conjured up last year, it’ll need to do it again. The Mavericks may be playing better ball and hold the third seed in the West, but they look nothing like the inspired championship team from 2011.

Dallas has been inconsistent this season, winning games it has the sheer talent to beat, but faltering against younger, quicker squads. The Mavs dropped their latest contest against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. They only scored 75 points to the Clippers’ 94, and head coach Rick Carlisle thought his team looked lethargic.

“No, it wasn’t very good,” Carlisle said after watching Monday’s game film. “We’re going to have to do a lot better [today against Memphis]. Breakdowns, and it really began with turnovers and transition defense. We’ve got to pick it up.”

The Mavericks have the old-school pieces in place to surprise everybody in the playoffs though, and if Carlisle can get them focused and running the floor, he thinks the team can get back to that elite level.

“Our awareness has got to be better,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got to do to things hard, we’ve got to do things efficiently, we’ve got to do things well and we have a higher level and we’re going to get to it.”

Printed on Wednesday, April 4, 2012 as: Texas' NBA teams all occupy playoff spots