After failing to separate themselves from the pack on an eight-game homestand, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in a three-way battle for a Western Conference playoff spot.
As the Mavericks start a four-game road trip on Thursday night against the Pacific Division champion Los Angeles Clippers, they realize the margin for error is very slim with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season.
"It's pretty clear,'' forward Dirk Nowitzki said. ''Win the next game, leave it all out there.''
Dallas (44-31) has the same record as both Memphis and Phoenix after going 4-4 on a homestand that featured three overtime losses, the latest a 122-120 heartbreaker on Tuesday to Golden State as Stephen Curry hit a long jumper just before time expired.
The Mavericks close their season with games against the Suns and Grizzlies, but they'll get a bit of a break after Thursday as they conclude this trip against the Los Angles Lakers, Sacramento and Utah - the West's three worst teams.
Coach Rick Carlisle is focused on how his team will react after Tuesday's defeat, which earned Dallas an apology from the league Wednesday. NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said Monta Ellis' shot with 16 seconds left - at the time ruled a clean block by Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal - was on the way down and should have been called goaltending.
"It's disappointing, but we've got to get ready for the (Clippers) game now," Carlisle told the team's official website. "I'm not big on analyzing how disappointing it is."
Los Angeles (54-22) is safely in the playoffs, having clinched the Pacific for the second straight season with Wednesday's 112-108 win at Phoenix. Blake Griffin returned to the lineup after being out with back spasms, and he and Darren Collison each scored 23 points as the Clippers rallied from 17 down.
"It's nice but it doesn't really mean much," Chris Paul said of winning the Pacific. "We won the division title last year and lost in the first round. Last year we would have gone into the (Phoenix) game knowing we had a chance to win the division. Now we don't care, it's all about the bigger picture."
The victory was Los Angeles' 17th in 19 games and its fourth straight to close a five-game trip. The first of those came last Thursday at Dallas, with Paul scoring 31 points in a 109-103 win.
The Clippers have won all three meeting this season and will be trying to sweep the Mavericks for the first time since 1993-94. They rallied from 17 down with 4 1/2 minutes to go in the first meeting at Staples Center on Jan. 15, winning 129-127 despite not having Paul.
That game featured five technical fouls and a flagrant after Dallas' Samuel Dalembert shoved Griffin to the ground.
Perhaps the biggest reason Los Angeles pulled that one out was J.J. Redick, who scored a career-high 33 points, and Dallas might again have to worry about Redick on Thursday. The Clippers' sharpshooter has, according to coach Doc Rivers, a 75 percent chance of returning after missing 25 games with a bulging disk in his lower back.
Guard Jamal Crawford, however, will miss a fourth straight with a sore left Achilles tendon.
Nowitzki, who scored 33 points in Tuesday's loss, has averaged 26.3 in his last four games against Los Angeles.