Series sets up Mavs-Rockets to be real rivalry

DALLAS -- The gasoline has been dripping down Interstate 45 for the past couple of years. This first-round series should be the match needed to ignite a real rivalry between the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets.

Oh, there's plenty of drama for fuel, as much as the Mavs made sure to steer clear of adding any fresh controversial fodder after wrapping up the regular season with a 114-98 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, which was meaningful really only because Dallas reached the 50-win milestone for the first time since its 2010-11 title season.

The games that really mattered to the Mavs went just the way they hoped, whether or not they'll say it on the record. Multiple Mavs have whispered in recent weeks that, given the options of tough West foes for the first round of the playoffs, they'd prefer to take their chances against a Rockets team that really hasn't won anything.

That wish was granted when the Rockets routed the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans punched their playoff tickets by snapping the San Antonio Spurs' 11-game winning streak -- sealing the second seed for Houston -- during seventh-seeded Dallas' successful dress rehearsal. By the way, Houston is probably just as happy to draw Dallas.

Now, after two summers listening to Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey exchange verbal jabs, we get to watch their franchises settle it on the floor during a playoff series packed with juicy storylines.

"I mean, it's more a rivalry since Cuban and what's-his-face went back and forth a little bit -- Morey -– but I think if you play a team in the playoffs once every 10 years you can't really speak of a rivalry," Mavs face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki said.

Dirk's right -- and that's exactly why this series is a gift from the basketball gods. These franchises have met in the postseason only twice and not since 2005, when Jason Terry was the hero as Dallas dug out of an 0-2 hole to win Game 7 at home by 40. This is the missing ingredient in the recipe for a really fun rivalry.

The proximity is perfect, with Dallas' American Airlines Center and Houston's Toyota Center separated by only 242 miles. There are high-profile players who have a history with the enemy, highlighted by the Mavs paying a premium price for small forward Chandler Parsons to swipe him from Houston in restricted free agency last summer and Terry wearing Rockets red a few seasons after his Dallas departure. And there's a healthy sports hatred between the fan bases, as Mavs fans insist Houston MVP candidate James Harden is an embarrassing flop artist and Rockets fans consider former MVP Nowitzki to be a whining Euro wimp.

And then we have the hundreds and hundreds of words worth of highly entertaining verbal sniping between Cuban and Morey, which all started two summers ago when the Rockets won the recruiting war for Dwight Howard and Morey inquired about Nowitzki's availability in a trade.

"That's a lot of external noise," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who is rightfully much more concerned with figuring out how to deal with Houston's co-stars and supporting cast. "We've got to make sure we ignore what's not important. What's important is our group, how tied together we are and how strong our will is. That's going to be the bottom line in this series."

Carlisle has already made it clear to his team that he won't tolerate any trash talk from the Mavs during the series. On the subject of Houston, all you should really expect to hear coming from the Mavs' mouths in the coming days is how much they respect the Rockets, how great Harden and Howard are, how well the Mavs must play to win this series, blah, blah, blah.

"We've got to make sure we stay locked in and keep everybody locked in and keep everybody understanding that this is not about this matchup and that matchup and this and that," Mavs center Tyson Chandler said, serving as an echo chamber for his coach like a leader should. "It's about the Mavericks vs. the Rockets, and that's it."

Carlisle might have also gotten that message across to his boss, who the coach helped convince to keep quiet for the final few series of the Mavs' title run four years ago.

"I don't think you're going to hear Mark say anything during this series," Carlisle said.

Maybe, but Cuban has said plenty in the past that the Rockets and their fans will surely remember. They might recall his after-the-fact wonder about whether consolation prize Monta Ellis would make a bigger impact than the big fish Howard the Mavs couldn't hook. They'll definitely remember Cuban's claim that MIT-educated math-geek Morey just doesn't understand chemistry as well as the Dallas decision-makers do. And how could they forget Cuban's frequent jabs about Houston's poor recent playoff history (only one series win since 1997)?

Parsons' long-distance verbal boxing matches with Morey and Harden were maybe even more entertaining after he joined the Mavs last summer. He took great offense to Morey's suggestion that he couldn't be the third star on a title contender and Harden's suggestion that the Rockets could keep rolling by replacing Parsons with another role player.

The Mavs can downplay it all they want -- "This is not a series about Chandler Parsons going back to Houston," Carlisle barked -- but you reckon Parsons wants to prove exactly how much the Rockets miss him despite their 56-win regular season? And you think the Rockets would love to knock Houston's Public Enemy No. 1 out in the first round?

There are so many sweet storylines in this series. There's been enough talk already. Let the games begin. The Mavs-Rockets rivalry is ready for takeoff.