Up 2-0, Mavs shine like champions

LOS ANGELES -- One franchise seeks to three-peat for the second time in the past 11 years. The other has a recent history of horrible playoff failure and has yet to hang a title banner.

You certainly can't tell which is which based on the first two games of these Western Conference semifinals.

The Dallas Mavericks are playing and behaving like champions, keeping an even keel after seizing control of the series. The Los Angeles Lakers look like a dysfunctional team on the brink of destruction, whining about "trust issues" after getting whipped on their home floor.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle scoffed at a question about whether he was surprised to walk out of the Staples Center with a 2-0 series lead after Wednesday night's convincing 93-81 win. His superstar, however, admitted this road trip went better than he could have imagined.

"If you would have told me before that we were going to win both games," Dirk Nowitzki said, "it would have been hard to believe."

It sure isn't hard to believe in these Mavericks all of a sudden.

Forget about all that postseason misery since the Mavericks took a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals. The Mavs have made those painful memories absolutely irrelevant. This is a completely different team than the previous Dallas editions.

These Mavs are a dominant defensive team, as evidenced by their West-best 88 points allowed per game in the playoffs.

Just look at the stats from the second half. The mighty Lakers managed to score a grand total of 32 points in 24 minutes. The Mavs made the Lakers a passive, jump-shooting, brick-laying bunch that shot only 33 percent from the floor after halftime.

"We really got dispirited," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

Jackson is actually more concerned about the Lakers' defense than their offense. They simply can't stop Nowitzki -- who scored 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting in Game 2 -- but L.A.'s biggest worry is screen-and-roll defense that Kobe Bryant described as atrocious.

Backup point guard J.J. Barea looked like an All-Star in the fourth quarter, when he carved up the Lakers for eight points and two assists while the beautiful people in the Staples Center stands started fleeing for the exits. L.A. couldn't keep the smallest player on the floor from wreaking havoc in the lane, which might have prompted Ron Artest's ridiculous and likely suspension-causing clothesline just before the buzzer and Lakers big man Andrew Bynum's postgame airing of dirty laundry.

"Obviously we have trust issues," Bynum said, specifically citing not being there for teammates on defense as an example. "Unless we come out and discuss them, nothing's going to change."

As Lakers legend Magic Johnson tweeted, "The Mavs have the Lakers pointing fingers at one another. It's going to be a tough climb to come back and I think their chances are slim."

The Mavs, on the other hand, are steadily developing more confidence and stronger chemistry.

They vowed to stick together after their Game 4 meltdown in Portland, when the Mavs blew a 23-point lead to let the Trail Blazers hand Dallas its 18th loss in 20 road playoff games. All the Mavs have done since is put together four straight wins, including three on the road.

And they still aren't close to satisfied.

"We ain't playing our best basketball," Jason Terry said. "It's a constant process. We grow with each game, with each series. It's good to see, because a lot of teams peak out at this time of the year. We've still got room to elevate."

The Mavs didn't even celebrate for a moment after the buzzer sounded Wednesday night. They simply walked off the floor and prepared to get back to work, assuming the Lakers won't go down without battling but keeping the bigger picture in mind.

"It's one of 16 that we need," Carlisle said of the Game 2 win. "Right now, we have 10 more wins to get to our goal."

Believe it or not, the Mavs look much more like champions than the Lakers.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.