LABELS LIKE THESE AREN'T EASILY SHED. MICHAEL JORDAN WAS clutch. Detroit's Bad Boys were nasty. The Lakers and the Celtics were otherworldly in nearly every postseason. And as modern-day basketball truths went, Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks were supposedly soft, masters of the choke job who would forever be known for their playoff failure rather than their run of regular-season success.
But that reputation was redefined in a first-round win over Portland—most emphatically after the Blazers had rallied from a 23-point second-half deficit to tie the series 2--2 with an 84--82 win in Game 4. Suddenly, favored Dallas, once up two games to none, was reeling, and Portland appeared poised to take the series.
The Mavs, though, would fight back against their critics and their tortured history, using the Game 4 collapse as a galvanizing moment. This year would not be a repeat of the infamous 2006 Finals against Miami, in which Dallas squandered a 2--0 series lead by losing four straight games; nor would it follow the course of the '07 six-game, first-round loss to eighth-seeded Golden State that negated the Mavericks' league-leading 67--15 regular-season record.
Instead Dallas turned in a gritty effort during a 93--82 Game 5 win at the American Airlines Center. Nowitzki scored 25 points, point guard Jason Kidd dished out 14 assists, and longtime Maverick Jason Terry pitched in 20 points off the bench. Key off-season addition Tyson Chandler was at the center of this team-wide turnaround. The high-flying 7-footer had welcomed his July trade from Charlotte for this very reason. He knew that his tenacity, defensive focus and leadership could take Dallas to new heights, past the days of nondescript centers and indescribable meltdowns. In Game 5 he was a frenetic force in the Mavs' well-timed zone defense, all the while making the most of his chances on the other end, as he finished with 20 rebounds and 14 points.
"They played like they wanted it more than we did," said Blazers guard Brandon Roy, who was held to just five points in Game 5. "They played harder than we did. I thought they played a little tougher than in the first four games. They had more of a sense of urgency."
It turned out that for once Dallas had a killer instinct and would finally show it on the road. From the time the Mavs had won those first two games against Miami in the '06 Finals, they had gone 2--18 on the road in the playoffs. Playing well at home was never the problem, which is why their wins against Portland in Game 1 (89--81) and Game 2 (101--89) did little to ease the doubts of so many Mavs skeptics.
But in Game 6 at the Rose Garden, Dallas put that skepticism to rest, winning 103--96 after overcoming a 12-point deficit. Nowitzki took his game to a higher level: His 33 points came on 11-of-17 shooting, marking the first time in the six playoff games that he had shot better than 50%.
Dallas had survived the first round for just the second time in its last five postseasons. The Mavericks, quite clearly, were different this time around.