DALLAS -- With two games remaining until the NBA All-Star break and 28 games left until proving time, it's time to take stock of a most intriguing, unpredictable and increasingly surprising Dallas Mavericks regular season.
First off, if you had the Mavs penciled in for 38 wins after 54 games, Mark Cuban has a dial-up Internet connection to sell you. Some so-called experts -- and no need to get into names here -- were predicting an implosion of high-priced veteran egos before any emergence of a defensive-minded, team-oriented, adversity-tested ballclub.
But the Mavs are 38-16, have won 11 of their past 12 games, and are the proud owners of two double-digit win streaks this season -- one pre-injury and one post.
When looking for reasons as to why, why not start with an unassuming leader like Shawn Marion? Here's someone who couldn't be happy -- or was perceived as not being happy -- as the third wheel on talented Phoenix Suns teams with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
Yet Mavs coach Rick Carlisle hinted over the summer about a plan to have the 11-year veteran, who had started 765 of his past 767 games, come off the bench and play fewer than 30 minutes a game for the first time in more than a decade.
For our younger, more text-savvy readers: LOL.
"I can't overstate the importance of Shawn Marion embracing a role coming off the bench and being a guy that's not only a scorer and being a defender, but he's been a playmaker for us, too," Carlisle said. "What he's done this year has gone very much under the radar. Most of you guys didn't think he could do it."
Again, no reason to name names here.
Carlisle continued: "There were a lot of questions about, 'Hey, what's going to happen when he doesn't want to do it?' Well, guess what? He's a pro, and what he's done this year off the bench has been probably one of the bigger reasons for the success we've had to this point."
Other reasons for the Mavs' terrific regular season include Dirk Nowitzki's MVP-caliber season -- even while missing a career-high nine games with a right knee sprain -- and center Tyson Chandler's ability to infuse the team with a defensive demeanor, energy, emotion and vocal leadership that was missing on past teams.
But if you want to talk about those all-important glue guys, start with Marion. He's averaging 11.5 points, is challenging Nowitzki for second on the team in rebounds at 6.6 a game, and is typically charged with defending the opponent's top scorer.
His steady play -- which has included an array of one-handed floaters, soaring tomahawk jams and close-range spin hooks -- has helped the Mavs crawl out of the depths of depression after a six-game losing skid (and 10 losses in 14 games) following knee injuries to Nowitzki and Caron Butler.
"Every team goes through adversity through a season. That's the definition of a team," Marion said. "No season will ever be perfect. How you deal with the adversity makes you a better team and better players. We came together more. We were trying to look for each other and just trying to find ways to get out of it, and once we did ... we got it going again. It's back on the same way it was earlier in the season."
Regular-season success doesn't excite even the most hardened MFFL these days, and there is plenty of skepticism regarding the Mavs' postseason chances. But there are also valid reasons why this club could return to the Western Conference finals for the first time in five years.
Their inability to hold a large lead, however, is not one of them.
The team is utilizing its sometimes suspect depth. It has rallied around a one-for-all cause. Rodrigue Beaubois is set to make his long-awaited return. Peja Stojakovic is just four games into his stint. Nowitzki is healthy. Chandler continues to emerge as an offensive force. The defense is re-emerging and the offense boasts stone-cold shooters.
And have you looked around the weakened Western Conference?
Here's a breakdown of the first 54 and reason to watch the final 28:
Biggest surprises: Chandler/J.J. Barea
The trade barely made a ripple of excitement, but now all anyone can talk about is whether the Mavs will be able to keep the 7-foot-1 Chandler, who is the main difference between this team and last season's squad that crumbled against San Antonio in the first round.
Chandler is close to averaging a double-double for only the second time in his career (10.5 points, 9.4 rebounds) and he's an anchor defensively. He's answered the biggest question coming in, having stayed healthy after two seasons of hard-luck foot and ankle injuries. No one could have predicted the impact he would have on this team, but even the boldest of prognosticators would not have come close to guessing that Nowitzki would call Chandler the team's MVP.
J.J. Barea has plenty of motivation to be a force in his fifth season with the Mavs. Since the team has big plans for Beaubois, Barea knows his minutes will have to come from somewhere. He is also always mentioned as a possible throw-in piece for a trade because he comes cheaply and seems expendable.
After a horrendous first two months to the season in which he shot around 13 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, Barea can stake a claim to being the team's best player since New Year's Day. In February, he's averaging 15.0 points, penetrating at will and knocking down 3-pointers (12-of-22). He's also averaging 4.0 assists.
Biggest disappointments: Beaubois' recovery/Brendan Haywood
The most anticipated season for a Mavs player in years has been on hold as Beaubois' six-to-eight week recovery from a fractured left foot became a five-month exercise in patience. After reinjuring his foot in October, the Mavs have taken a cautionary route with the second-year guard, who is finally expected to be active for Wednesday's home game against the Sacramento Kings.
Early on, Chandler suggested that he and Brendan Haywood set a goal of combining for 20 points and 20 rebounds a night. It was a lofty goal to begin with, but one made impossible due to the uninspired season Haywood is having after he signed a megadeal in the offseason.
Everything has failed the 7-foot veteran, all the way to his career-low 35.6 free throw percentage. He was suspended by Carlisle before a game at San Antonio. Twice he hasn't even played. He's fallen so far that third-string center Ian Mahinmi is becoming Carlisle's favorite to play behind Chandler, and even behind Nowitzki at power forward. The Mavs believed a combo of Chandler and Haywood would help them against the Los Angeles Lakers' front-line length in a playoff series. Now it just might have to be a different combination.
Reasons for skepticism: Problems not fixed
The Mavs did not address their two major flaws from last season's first-round loss to the Spurs. They still don't have a player who can consistently penetrate, outside of undersized reserve Barea, nor do they have a dependable low-post scoring threat to go to when defenses clamp down and games grind into half-court sets in the postseason.
Chandler has provided pop inside the paint, mostly on lob passes that he grabs and dunks, but he's not a back-to-the-basket threat. Jason Kidd simply can't get to the basket and, more recently, he has deferred to Barea as the primary ball handler to get in the paint and create for himself and others. Beaubois could be a solution upon his return, but to expect a second-year player fresh off a long-term injury to dominate the ball and produce in high-stakes playoff games could be asking too much.
Reasons for optimism: Defense and a weaker West
Before injuries sent the Mavs into a state of shock, they had constructed a 24-5 record more or less on the backbone of defense. They talked about it, practiced it and executed it -- including a suffocating 2-3 zone -- and no more so than in crunch time in tight games that helped produce wins against Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah and Miami.
The Mavs were ranked in the top five in both scoring defense and field goal percentage defense before being hit by injuries. After a total unraveling, the Mavs have reclaimed some of that defensive edge. They rank seventh in the NBA in scoring defense (95.3) and 10th in field goal percentage (44.8).
Even with five or more players routinely scoring in double figures, the Mavs know that in the postseason they will go only as far as their defense takes them.
As for the Western Conference, yes, it remains a difficult path, but it is not nearly as deep as the past few seasons. The Mavs, who currently hold down the No. 2 seed, figure to finish in the top four. While there are no easy outs, a first-round matchup doesn't look nearly as daunting as past seasons (a potential series against Denver would be highly entertaining).
A second-round series figures to come against the Lakers, Spurs or Thunder. Dallas is 4-3 against those teams, but the record is misleading. In three games against the Spurs, the Mavs are 1-2, but won the lone matchup with a healthy roster in San Antonio. Dallas is 2-1 against the Thunder with two road wins and one home loss without Nowitzki.
The Mavs have played one of the more difficult schedules in the league, with 31 games against teams with winning records, and they are 20-11 in those games. That will even out after the All-Star break.
Five of their first seven opponents after the break have losing records. The Mavericks have 15 more road games and 13 at home, where they are 20-8. The most difficult portion of the schedule is a six-game, 10-day all-Western Conference road trip from March 26 through April 3, with stops at Utah, Phoenix, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Golden State and Portland.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.