Dirk Nowitzki: 'Not scared' of West

DALLAS -- As far as Dirk Nowitzki is concerned, the road out of the Western Conference still runs through Dallas.

The defending NBA champion Mavericks might not be a popular pick after remodeling their roster due to financially motivated decisions, but their superstar believes they're still the team to beat despite some early-season struggles.

"I haven't seen one team in the West that I'm scared of," Nowitzki said. "I really haven't. I think we can compete with all of them.

"Oklahoma City has probably the best record, but I think we've played them well every time we've seen them and everybody else has been up and down."

The Thunder have jumped to an NBA-best 15-3 record, but the Mavs believe they have a mental edge over the team they eliminated in five games in last season's Western Conference finals. Dallas sixth man Jason Terry referred to it as a "big brother-little brother scenario" after the Mavs' 100-87 win Jan. 2 over Oklahoma City.

The Thunder won on Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating 28-footer in the teams' other meeting this season, which left the Mavs 0-3 at the time.

Dallas is 11-8 and tied with the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers for sixth in the West despite Nowitzki's early-season woes.

After struggling, by his standards, for 16 games, Nowitzki will sit out his fourth consecutive game Friday night against the Utah Jazz, taking a week to go through a personal training camp and strengthen his sore right knee.

Nowitzki has taken issue with the inference that he is out of shape and his owner Mark Cuban backed him Friday during his appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM's "Ben and Skin Show."

"His knee hurts because he didn't have the time to prepare," Cuban said. "When you don't have the time to prepare, you're not conditioned to play the way you're accustomed to.

"So it's not like he was a fat slob. It's like anything else. The older you get, the more prepared you have [to be], particularly when you're Dirk, when you have a very definitive process you go through every summer. When you can't do that, you're not going to be in position to play your best basketball."

The Mavs are the league's oldest team and anticipate ebbs and flows to a lockout-shortened, 66-game regular season. They aren't concerned about playoff seeding as long as they qualify. Their priority is to be as rested, fresh and ready to peak once the postseason begins.

"All we have to do is keep working and hopefully keep everyone healthy and be there when it counts and in the playoffs," said Nowitzki, who hopes to return Sunday against the rival San Antonio Spurs. "But I'm not scared of seeing anyone I've seen."

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.