• OPPONENT: Dallas Mavericks

    RECORD: 23-54 (14-25 at home, 2-8 last 10 games)

    MEASUREABLES: 104.2 offensive rating (22nd), 107.1 defensive rating (18th), -3.0 net rating (22nd)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: Dennis Smith, Dorian Finney-Smith, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell

    INJURIES, ABSENCES: Nowitzki (ankle – questionable), Dwight Powell (knee – questionable), Nerlens Noel (suspension – out for season), Salah Mejri (knee – out), Wesley Matthews (leg – out), Seth Curry (leg – out)

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 8:30 EST, American Airlines Arena, NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Southwest

    The Portland Trail Blazers can officially secure the three seed in the Western Conference, and a potential second-round date with the fragile Golden State Warriors, by winning two of their final five games. Portland can do so by external means, too, but the quickest way of sealing that fate and allowing regulars some much-needed rest and recuperation before the playoffs is left squarely up to Damian Lillard and company.

    The easiest remaining game on the schedule is Tuesday’s on the road against the Dallas Mavericks, a team beset by injuries all season long that’s made no secret of its desire to gain as high a draft pick as possible. Dallas doesn’t want to win right now as much as it wants to better lottery odds and foster the development of young players – in that order. Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell are questionable versus the Blazers with nagging minor injuries; don’t be surprised if either or both players sit out, forcing Rick Carlisle to go even deeper into his bench with Nerlens Noel suspended for a violation of the league’s anti-drug policy and Salah Mejri sidelined with a bad knee bruise. Rookies Maxi Kleber and Johnathan Motley, Dallas’ two-way player, will receive major minutes up front regardless, and perhaps even close the game whether it’s competitive or not.

    The presence of Nowitzki and Powell alone certainly won’t ensure that Portland is in for a fight against an inferior foe. The current preferred starting trio of Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki and Powell has a -14.0 net rating in 183 minutes, per NBA.com/stats, scoring, defending and rebounding at near league-worst rates. It’s not hard to understand why. Barnes has been best suited as a small-ball four for years, and putting another true big man next to Nowitzki, even one with decent foot speed like Powell, only exacerbates his problems defending in space while shrinking the floor on the other end. Dallas, unsurprisingly, is a dismal 6-25 in the games that triumvirate has taken the floor.

    Dennis Smith, Jr. has been shooting the ball well from 3-point range of late, but remains a net negative due to his inability to get through screens and overall inattentiveness on defense. J.J. Barea will be back on Tuesday after missing action recently due to personal reasons, and has long tormented Portland with his sense of pace and overall knack as a playmaker. He won’t be able to keep Dallas close by himself in a high-scoring affair, though, and is always a liability guarding the ball due to inherent physical limitations. Damian Lillard is averaging 30 points and six assists on 57.6 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from beyond the arc against the Mavericks this season. He may not maintain that incredible amalgam of production and efficiency on Tuesday, but it’s nevertheless a good indication of how easily offense has come for the Blazers versus Dallas in these teams’ two prior matchups.

    This is a great opportunity for Portland to put pressure on the teams directly below them in the standings. With a victory on Tuesday and a single remaining loss by the Utah Jazz, the Blazers will clinch home-court advantage in the first round. With one more win after that or a loss by the San Antonio Spurs, they’ll be locked into the three seed – which is probably their surest means of an upset in the Western Conference Semifinals given Steph Curry’s balky ankle.

    One step at a time, though. The playoffs are coming. And by beating the tanking, short-handed Mavericks in Dallas, we’ll gain a much clearer picture of Portland’s road through the postseason – which would begin by hosting a series at Moda Center.

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