Mavs ugly, but effective in Game 1

DALLAS -- Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

The Dallas Mavericks' Game 1 win over the Portland Trail Blazers certainly wasn't aesthetically pleasing. The Mavs pulled out an 89-81 victory despite shooting 40.9 percent from the floor and failing to make a field goal for a span of more than 11 minutes.

But the Mavs don't mind ugly. As a team with a pretty boy reputation, the Mavs were proud to prove they could win games when their offense spits and sputters like an old pickup truck. If the Mavs' smile is missing a tooth or two, so be it.

The grind-it-out win reinforced the image the Mavs have of themselves and their hope for having a legitimate shot to make it out of the West. They believe this Dallas team, due to its defense, is different than the ones that flamed out in recent first rounds.

"You're going to have games where it's tough, where you get down and have such a tough time scoring the basketball," said big man Tyson Chandler, the heart, soul and voice of the Mavs' defensive improvement this season. "What you've got to do is just stay in them and find a way to win them. If you can find a way to win these games, what's going to happen on nights where we're rolling offensively?"

The answer to Chandler's question is obvious. The Mavs rarely lose when they light it up. Dallas went 43-4 when it hit triple digits on the scoreboard this season.

The flip side of that: The Mavs were 14-21 when they failed to hit 100. That's evidence of their inconsistent defense.

The Mavs accomplished their goal of being a top-10 defensive team, ranking 10th in points allowed (96.0 per game) and eighth in defensive efficiency (105.0 points allowed per 100 possessions). But there was slippage in the second half of the season, in part because Caron Butler's defensive presence couldn't be replaced.

That's the primary reason it made sense for coach Rick Carlisle to replace struggling Rodrigue Beaubois with DeShawn Stevenson as the starting shooting guard. Stevenson is a 6-foot-5, 232-pound, heavily-tattooed tone setter. The Mavs are a much tougher team with him in the mix, although they are also more limited offensively.

It's not exactly stunning that the Mavs struggled to score in a playoff game. They've had problems putting the ball in the hole during the postseason, when the pace slows down and a premium is put on half-court execution and scoring in the paint, for years. They fell short of 90 points -- a miserable milestone by NBA standards -- eight times in the previous five postseasons.

The surprise is that the Mavs actually won a game when their offense went kaput for most of the night. They lost seven of those eight sub-90 playoff games.

Not that the Mavs' defensive performance was perfect. They benefitted from Portland's poor shooting and gave up far too many points in the paint (46).

"I don't like anything right now," Carlisle grumbled, but he acknowledged that he was encouraged the Mavs could win a game while shooting so poorly.

Can you imagine what would have happened to previous Mavs squads if they dealt with a dry spell that lasted almost the length of a full quarter? Jason Kidd, whose stepback jumper with 5:28 remaining ended the dry spell, has a pretty good idea.

"We would have been down 20," Kidd said, "and thinking about Game 2."

Now, the Mavs are up one in the series and thinking about Game 2. For a change, defense dominates the thought process in Dallas, which made ugly work in the playoff opener.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. Follow him on Twitter.