Mavs shouldn't be counted out

DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks didn't look anything close to a championship contender at the end of the long, grueling stretch of games.

They ended the gauntlet with three consecutive losses, each coming in embarrassing fashion. The Mavs looked old, slow, tired and completely incapable of competing with the NBA's elite.

A little more than two months later, the Mavs were dancing and drinking out of giant, $80,000 champagne bottle and passing the Larry O'Brien Trophy around trendy Club Liv in Miami Beach while celebrating the franchise's first championship.

The moral of the story: Try not to knee-jerk too much about the Mavs' miserable 2-7 stretch coming out of the All-Star break. Put the shovels down. It's way too early to declare the defending NBA champions dead, much less dig the Mavs' grave.

Perhaps the memories of the Mavs' peaking in the playoffs and the five-years-in-the-making parade through downtown Dallas made folks forget how horrible this team looked during the last half of a six-game road trip in late March and early April. The Mavs got blown out by the Lakers and beaten convincingly by the Warriors and Trail Blazers, then lost to the Nuggets upon returning home.

Anybody who predicted a title for the Mavs at that point fell somewhere between extremely optimistic and delusional.

The point isn't to excuse the Mavs' awful start to this lockout-compressed season's second half, when they managed to lose to the West's four worst teams in a span of nine days. It's just to provide a little perspective, some recent evidence that a wretched run in the regular season might not mean anything in the long run.

"Our excuses last year were only marginal. That was all spin," owner Mark Cuban said with a laugh. "This year, we've got some decent excuses, so I'll put 'em to good use. Look, nine games in 12 nights -- this team was not designed for that, especially when you have injuries."

Wanna be pessimistic? This can all be considered proof that last season's Mavs made one of the most improbable championship runs in NBA history.

After all, the Mavs were a franchise that had developed a reputation for one-and-done playoff meltdowns and had only two wins over West playoff teams from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season. Now, with Tyson Chandler and some other key contributors cashing checks from other teams, the Mavs are scrapping just to qualify for the playoffs with a third of this season remaining.

But a championship banner buys some benefit of the doubt, at least for a season, assuming Dirk Nowitzki can stay healthy and the Mavs make sure that Jason Kidd's legs are fresh for the playoffs.

"After what we went through last year, I think anything's possible," Nowitzki said. "That really showed everybody that the sky's the limit. Nobody saw it coming, but that team had what it takes to go all the way. We've got to be patient, got to work through some things and got to get better."

The Mavs might want to mix in a healthy sense of urgency with that patience.

They aren't good enough to coast, as Nowitzki has said several times over the past couple of weeks. They also aren't good enough to just take a playoff berth for granted. It's hard to envision any of the would-be lottery teams in the West sustaining a hot streak, but the Mavs can't just mail it in down the stretch with 15 of their remaining 22 games against teams that hold playoff positioning.

"They know when the time is here," Jason Terry said of the Mavs' veterans, "and it's now."

It'd be nice for the Mavs to carry a little momentum into the playoffs. That wasn't necessary last season, but it'd be foolish to assume that the Mavs can just flip the switch at the end of the regular season again.

It'd be just as foolish to assume that the Mavs aren't capable of contending due to an awful stretch of the regular season.

Those declaring doomsday for Dallas already should learn from recent history. The Mavericks are trying to repeat it.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.