'The Trade' helps Mavs push back

There are a few truths that are held to be self-evident in the NBA, urban myths, if you will, that prove the theory that perception eventually becomes reality.

You know what I'm talking about.

The game really doesn't start until the fourth quarter.

Defense wins championships.

Kobe always gets the benefit of the doubt from the refs.

The Dallas Mavericks will never be tough enough to win an NBA championship.

It's that last one, if there's any justice, that is finally about to be sent to the "deleted" file once and for all.

The Mavs -- winners of 13 straight after rallying past the Nets, 96-87 -- are suddenly the coolest team in town and the talk of NBA experts from coast to coast. Michael Wilbon says they're now the Los Angeles Lakers' biggest threat. ESPN analyst Tim Legler declares that they're now a "complete team" that "has everything in place to make a run" at the Lakers.

It's obvious what a healthy Brendan Haywood does for the Mavs, especially working as a tag-team act with Erick Dampier. And Caron Butler, according to Legler, has helped to upgrade the Mavs to an "above average" defensive team.

The Trade, as it will be known forevermore in Mavericks lore, has done for Dallas what the Pau Gasol deal did for the Lakers. And isn't that what all teams dream about, their own Gasol trade?

Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban simply went out and made theirs come true.

As much as the versatile Butler does for the Mavs' defense, as nice as it is to have a center who can actually finish plays offensively, here's what I like most about the deal:

It immediately wipes out the perception that the Mavs just aren't tough enough when push comes to shove -- because they never seemed to be the ones doing the pushing and shoving.

You notice that no one's talking about the Mavs' alleged lack of toughness these days?

It's highly doubtful that the Mavs have caught up to the Lakers from a talent standpoint, but at least they've played themselves into the conversation now. They've given themselves a puncher's chance if they can just get themselves into the Western Conference finals with the La-La boys.

What they've absolutely done, however, is make that finals matchup a far more likely proposition by putting themselves in better position to get around or through the Denver Nuggets. And we are all on the same page in understanding that the Nuggets are a physically tough team to play, right?

Anybody else get sick of hearing the TNT announcers rant on the Mavs' lack of toughness during their playoff series with the Nuggets last spring?

Remember when Dirk Nowitzki actually praised the defensive prowess of Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and Nene after Game 1 of that series? The compliments sent TNT's Charles Barkley, Chris Webber and Kenny Smith into a tizzy of derision.

I'm paraphrasing, but what they were saying was pretty direct: You don't compliment an opponent unless you're an absolute wussy. You trash-talk them, you don't praise them.

Said Smith, "It feeds the perception that this guy is playing a little soft."

Added Webber, "He's afraid of a defender."

Yeah, he was really playing soft. Nowitzki, with his personal life in shambles and his longtime girlfriend stewing in jail, went out and scored 35 on the Nuggets in Game 2 that night. What a wussy.

Then he put 33 on them in Game 3, 44 in Game 4 and 32 in Game 5. He got no help from his friends, naturally, but in the final four games of a series the Nuggets won in five, Dirk averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds and shot 53 percent from the field.

We should all be so soft.

Didn't matter, of course. Not even that performance was going to change the public perception of Nowitzki -- he's a white European, you know -- or the Mavs.

Too soft to be taken seriously.

Maybe not so much now.

First, the Mavs subtracted Josh Howard, and if you're saying, "Hold up there a sec, Howard was one of the toughest Mavs around," you'd be right. Sort of.

Howard could be tough, but he also routinely disappeared in the fourth quarter of games. And that was when he was healthy enough to play at all, which he wasn't much in that 2009 playoff series against Denver. So although Howard had his own edge at times, it wasn't there often enough when the Mavs needed it, for a variety of reasons.

So delete Howard and add Haywood, with his length and mobility, in the middle. Drop in Butler, who can switch between guarding 2s or 3s with equanimity. And don't forget DeShawn Stevenson, who can be as tough as nails and adds yet another defensive dimension the Mavs lacked.

While we're at it, let's not discount the additions of Shawn Marion and old friend Eduardo Najera, either. They also help give the Mavs a different look physically and athletically.

It's not necessarily a bad thing that teams still might take the Mavs lightly at playoff time, figuring all they have to do is lean on them a little bit, push them around some, and they'll run and hide. Truth be told, they earned that reputation a long time ago.

Something tells me, however, that those who expect the Mavs to cut and run the first time somebody bloodies their nose this spring have a big surprise coming.

These aren't your daddy's Mavs anymore, and they're ready to rumble, if that's what it takes.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.