Dirk Nowitzki makes chippy Blazers pay

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Don't mess with Dirk, to borrow a slogan from the adopted home state of the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise.

The Portland Trail Blazers learned that lesson the hard way during Thursday's Game 6.
The Blazers tried to ruffle the big German's feathers with physical and borderline dirty play. And it backfired big-time, as Dirk Nowitzki dominated during the Mavericks' 103-96 win to close out the first-round series at the Rose Garden.

"Dirk is tough," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "There's never been a question."

There have been doubts, however. Just not from folks who are around Dirk on a daily basis. One sequence in the second quarter was symbolic of the toughness of a future Hall of Famer who has so often -- and so inaccurately -- been stereotyped as a soft European.

With Dallas down 11, Nowitzki went hard to the hole, drawing contact from backup Blazers big man Chris Johnson while finishing a lefty layup. Nowitzki hollered to punctuate the three-point play, apparently offending the D-League's defensive player of the year.

Johnson responded by getting in Nowitzki's grill, then tried to rearrange it after Nowitzki grabbed a rebound on the ensuing possession. Johnson was called for a flagrant foul after taking a right-handed swipe at Nowitzki's face from behind.

Dirk went down, staying on the hardwood for several seconds. Then he got back up and knocked down the pair of free throws, part of the nine points he scored during the Mavs' 13-2 run to tie the score.

The Mavs took the lead for good moments later and never relinquished it, holding off what would have been another remarkable Rose Garden rally in the fourth quarter.

"I went to the basket for an and-1 and he kind of punched me in the face there," said Nowitzki, who finished with 33 points and 11 rebounds as the Mavs earned the right to challenge the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. "Hey, that was kind of their thing. They wanted to really be physical with us. We talked about how that's not going to happen today. This is our moment."

Fair or not, the Mavs' history of painful playoff failures affects the perception of Nowitzki. Never mind that he's one of four men in NBA history to average at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in their postseason careers.

That's fine with Nowitzki, who deals with criticism like he does a defender's hand in the face as he shoots one of his trademark one-legged fadeaways. He doesn't let it bother him at all, accepting that the only way to change everyone's mind is to accomplish his championship goal.

As a superstar, Nowitzki has taken the brunt of the blame for a team that failed to display mental toughness too often in playoffs past. The Mavs kept telling us this team is different. They proved it in this series by rebounding from a playoff meltdown of historic proportions -- blowing a 23-point lead in a Game 4 loss -- with a pair of wins to end basketball season in Rip City.

Nowitzki will never be known as one of the league's most ferocious players. While his post-up game has developed to dangerous levels over the years, he'll always be a 7-footer with a finesse-based game.

It's just silly to mistake finesse for soft.

You can go all the way back to the modern-day Mavs' first playoff run for evidence of Nowitzki's toughness. A wayward elbow left his front right tooth on the floor with the Mavs facing elimination against the San Antonio Spurs. Nowitzki missed a grand total of 33 seconds, returning to finish off a 30-point performance that extended the series.

"Toughness doesn't always mean throwing a punch back or doing something like that," said Mavs center Tyson Chandler, who challenged his teammates to be tougher after a blowout loss in their last meeting with the Lakers. "It means getting up and going at them even tougher. You're frustrating them.

"I think that was huge for us. That's the reason why we won the game. Dirk got up and instead of getting in some dumb altercation, he said, 'All right, I'm going to punish you on this other end.'"

Nowitzki punished Portland during the second quarter, when he had 13 points while the Mavs seized control. He did it again during the fourth quarter, when he had 14 points (the third time he scored at least that many in the final frame this series) to allow the Mavs to survive a Blazers comeback that caused Game 4 flashbacks.

It will only get tougher now that the Mavs must step into the ring with the champs. Don't worry about Dirk being up for the challenge.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.