Mavs try to forge new playoff identity

DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks made a statement by strongly closing out Game 1 in the final four minutes. Tuesday's Game 2 provides the chance to throw down an enforcer-type exclamation that few around the league may believe rumbles inside this team.

Contrary to the pontifications of many prognosticators prior to the start of this series against the No. 6-seed Portland Trail Blazers, the No. 3-seed Mavs are no underdog. They won 57 games to Portland's 48. They are the higher seed. They have home-court advantage.

They are the favorite, and Game 2 back at friendly American Airlines Center can further advance this season's theme of fortified mental toughness, or it can punch holes in it.

"It's only been one game in the playoffs. I think you've got to give them more time to see if they're mentally tough," Portland center Marcus Camby said. "Being bounced out in the first round the last couple of years, you can say the same thing about us. I just think it's too early to tell."

The Blazers haven't advanced past the first round since 2000. Still, they're not the Mavs. They haven't been humiliated, then embarrassed in consecutive postseasons (even though most of the players on those teams are long gone). Rival players haven't tweeted about their fragility, and rival coaches haven't publicly stated they want to play them.

These are artillery shots at and definitive tests of the Mavs' manhood.

"Again," Mavs guard Jason Terry said, "it's all about focus, focusing in on the task. Nothing else matters."

And so with each playoff game comes a new challenge for a franchise desperate to tear away all references to its wilting past. Look no further than a year ago. The Mavs, then the No. 2 seed, beat the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs at home in Game 1.

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki remembers Game 2 quite well.

"I don't think last year we were quite ready for San Antonio's hit," Nowitzki said. "We're kind of in the same situation. We had to grind Game 1 out, got a good win and then they really came out smoking and were all over us. They were just more ready I felt like, and then we had to react and it was too late.

"That's what the Blazers are going to do. They're going to leave it all out there and we've got to be ready for the first hit and be aggressive."

The Mavs then lost both games in San Antonio and bowed out in six. They don't want a Game 2 repeat before a long flight to Portland, where the Rose Garden will be rocking for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.

A split here would be a significant victory for the underdog Blazers.

"That's all you're thinking when you play on the road: 'We came here to get one,'" Mavs center Tyson Chandler said. "And we can't allow that. It's just really about the way we approach the game. I really like our energy right now, the way we're focused in practice, the way we're executing, the way we're paying attention to detail."

Still, the situation is tenuous. The Mavs nearly let Saturday's Game 1 slip away. A 10-point, third-quarter lead turned to dust and Portland led by six, 72-66, with half of the fourth quarter gone and several Blazers charging downcourt following a Dallas turnover.

Only they fumbled the fastbreak out of bounds under their own bucket. Another slam dunk to go up eight would have induced a sure timeout from Mavs coach Rick Carlisle and nervous grumbling from the sellout crowd.

Instead, the Mavs got the ball back and Jason Kidd hit a jumper that ended an 11-minute Dallas field goal drought and redirected the Mavs toward victory.

"We bend, but we didn't break," said Kidd, who scored a season-high 24 points, although his lone turnover, a bad pass to start the Portland break, nearly tossed it all away. "That was what happened [Saturday] night. We were bending and we could have easily folded or broke."

The Mavs exited Game 1 with a sense of resolve, proud to have won the game with a defensive effort that limited Portland to 81 points and buoyed a wobbly offense that generated three players scoring in double figures and a team shooting percentage of 40.9.

And despite Dallas benefiting from a combined 40-point disparity from the 3-point arc and free-throw line, the game still went down to the wire. Three of the four games in the regular season series did as well, and the road team is still looking for a first win.

"Every ballgame is going to come down the stretch like it did [Saturday] night," Camby said. "Both teams are evenly matched. We both know what the other is going to run."

Therefore, the team that imposes its will over the other will emerge with the series momentum. These Mavs vow they are different. They are tough, inside and out, they claim.

Game 2 will test both teams, and either the Mavs or the Blazers will move closer to forging a new playoff identity before heading to the Pacific Northwest.

"That's what we've been working on the last couple weeks of the season," Nowitzki said. "Sometimes we lost our composure there in the fourth quarters when the games got tight. We can't do that in the playoffs. We've got to stick together."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.