Dampier demonstrates subtle swagger

DALLAS -- It's hardly uncommon for Jason Terry to make bold proclamations or hype things up a bit, but when Erick Dampier gets in on the act you know the Dallas Mavericks must be feeling pretty good about themselves.

Before departing on an intriguing three-game road trip in which the Mavs will look to clinch the season series against the division-rival Houston Rockets (Thursday), run with a young and feisty Sacramento Kings team (Saturday) and win a second consecutive game against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday), Dampier -- more often a silent giant -- put out a few playful barbs.

Asked about the toughness of Rockets forward Carl Landry, who left the game in Dallas two weeks ago with pieces of his five cracked teeth lodged in Dirk Nowitzki's elbow only to return after one game and score 27 points, Dampier quipped: "Is he tough? We don't know if he's tough. We just know he got his teeth knocked out. I mean, there's still a question about his toughness. We'll see how he plays tomorrow."

Dampier then feigned ignorance when asked if there's any sympathy for a Rockets team dealt the harsh blow of long-term injuries to star players Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady: "Who? Who is that? Those guys are not on the floor, we don't know them this year."

And finally, asked if he's looking forward to learning more about his 22-9 squad against a fully healthy Lakers team that played without Pau Gasol in early November when the Mavs walked away with a rare road win, Dampier shot back: "OK, well, Josh [Howard] will be back with us. We've got a full squad, too."

Highly unusual stuff from the Mavs' center, but then again, maybe he's just feeling good after dealing with a mystery illness early in the season. He's certainly playing as if he's in a good mood. It would be easy to point out that it's a contract year, and the most recent time Dampier was in such a situation he averaged career highs of 12.0 points and 12.3 rebounds for Golden State and parlayed it into a $73 million contract with the Mavs.

But that was then, and the Mavs will take this type of production -- 8.5 points and 9.8 rebounds -- all day. Both categories are up about three a game from last season's totals, while his minutes have increased by nearly five a game. So much for coach Rick Carlisle's training-camp talk about starting Drew Gooden. Dampier has started all 27 games he's played.

For good measure heading into the new year, here's Terry's take on the three-game road trip:

"There's no greater joy than when you hear the entire opposing crowd going nuts and you hit a shot to silence them. I live for that moment," said Terry, who's still searching for his shooting stroke of last season. "It's going to be nothing different on this trip. It's going to be a big trip for us going into the new year."

Carlisle said he's just hoping for good health in the new year, especially with swingman Josh Howard, who ran into trouble in Denver with a tender hamstring. He finished out the game and played well but has been limited in practice. Carlisle said he'll cross his fingers and hope Howard will play against the Rockets.

It would seem that the Mavs would eventually start to catch teams with their full contingent of players. Dallas has had a bit of a strange run of playing teams short-handed, such as the Denver Nuggets without Chauncey Billups, the Lakers without Gasol, the San Antonio Spurs without Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, the Golden State Warriors without half its roster, the Minnesota Timberwolves without Al Jefferson and Portland, Detroit and Washington all missing a key piece or pieces.

Of course, the Mavs lost some of those games, and they can say they've played the injury game, with Howard, Dampier, Shawn Marion and Gooden all missing multiple games.

Which means Sunday's showdown in L.A. between the Western Conference's top two teams, two fully healthy ones -- assuming the concussed Ron Artest is cleared to play by then -- is must-see TV.

"What happens with other teams health-wise, it impacts the games and it impacts what happens in the league, but everybody has to deal with guys being out," Carlisle said. "Really, I have a hard time looking ahead beyond today and tomorrow. Our goal is to get to Houston healthy and be able to step on the floor and be in good shape."

As Carlisle notes regarding injuries, he takes nothing for granted.

"Last year we went to Houston and had a breakfast meeting and Josh seemed fine and in the afternoon his ankle blew up and he ended up missing 30 games during the year," Carlisle said. "So you just can't assume anything."

Jeff Caplan covers the Dallas Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.