By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The fate of this Dallas Mavericks season was placed on faith that their three aging, yet ultra-integral, players could stay healthy.
Dirk Nowitzki, 35, Shawn Marion, 35, and Vince Carter, 37, combined to play 237 of 246 games this season, every second essential as they won 49 games and pushed the franchise back into the playoffs. It will be seen if this trio of iron men have enough to shove the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs deep into a first-round series that begins Sunday (1 p.m., ET, TNT). Still, it’s been another legacy-making season for all three.
“For these old guys — our old guys — getting in the playoffs is huge,” reserve guard Devin Harris said. “Everybody wants to be competitive, especially since we don’t know how many years they have left. We want to make sure we compete at the highest level.”
Of the Mavs’ top minute men, Monta Ellis logged the most by a wide margin. The next four: Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, Marion and Carter.
“It’s a tribute to us three taking care of our bodies,” Nowitzki said. “We try to live right, we try to eat right and get our sleep. Ultimately, our guys do the maintenance stuff we need to do to still compete at a high level, whether it’s lifting or stretching or running in the pool or getting some extra cardio in, I think all three of us are willing to do that work and I think it shows.”
Marion completed his 15th regular season and played 76 games. Nowitzki and Carter each finished their 16th season. Nowitzki played in 80 games and Carter fired off the bench in 81. To push the top-seeded Spurs, who surround their three older players, Tim Duncan, a week from turning 38, Manu Ginobili, 36, and Tony Parker — who’s still just 31 — with a deep and youthful crew, Dallas will need vintage Dirk, an all-around effort from Marion and a 3-point bonanza from Carter.
“They could be sitting on the couch at home if they didn’t want to play, so there’s a reason they’re here,” 26-year-old reserve center Brandan Wright said. “They want to get back to the playoffs and make some things happen.”
Nowitzki led Dallas in scoring and moved to No. 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He joined Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the only players in the history of the game to average at least 21 points and six assists at age 35 or older. He finished as close to a 50-40-90 season as possible without getting there in any of the three categories: 49.7 percent overall, 39.8 percent from 3-point range and 89.9 percent from the free throw line.
Marion finished second on the team in rebounding after being first the previous two seasons. The 6-foot-7 small forward is now 35th on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list, and 17th on the all-time steals list.
Carter moved to No. 25 on the all-time scoring list last weekend and he moved up to No. 7 on the all-time 3-pointers made list. He drained more 3-pointers this season (146) than any player in the league off the bench, and more than only Calderon on the team despite logging nearly 500 fewer minutes.
“An injury to Vince off the bench would have been devastating for us,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a big scorer and we need him out there for us.”
This could be the final season in Dallas for Marion, the last remaining member with Nowitzki from the 2011 title team, and Carter. Both veterans are in the final year of their contracts. There’s already whispers that Marion would be a logical fit to replace the retiring Shane Battier in Miami. Carter has said he’d like to remain with Dallas for a fourth season.
“I do all the things I need to do just to compete because every night I step on the floor there’s guys who I’m guarding who are 10, 12 years younger than me,” Carter said. “So how can I compete? I just put my work in.”
Just three seasons ago after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix, Carter’s career seemed to be headed for a final sunset. But he’s been reinvigorated in Dallas, accepting a sixth man role and one of the top 3-point shooters going, hitting at a 39.4-percent clip.
“I think he wasn’t really happy with the role he had there,” Nowitzki said. “Sometimes they would just put him in the corner and he felt like he wasn’t really involved; that’s how it looked to me. Here, he can do whatever he wants. He’s got the ultimate green light off the bench. He knows we need him.”