Mavericks confident despite doubters

DALLAS -- What a bizarre closing month around here. And it got especially strange over these last two weeks.

We've seen tattooed Los Angeles Lakers journeyman Matt Barnes punk the Dallas Mavericks via Twitter and Denver coach George Karl candidly state his first-round affection for the Mavs, by 55/45 ratio, over a more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder outfit.

Analysts on both of the NBA's cable carriers are picking the Mavs as the most likely top-four seed to be bounced before May. Even the local fandom has all but braced for first-round doom. And really, who could blame them with how this sporadically dysfunctional final month was unfolding -- Jason Terry's bench tirade and missed free throw celebration notwithstanding.

Yet, here stand the Dallas Mavericks after Wednesday's 121-89 second-half blitzing of the New Orleans Hornets, after 5 ½ grueling months and 82 regular-season games with 57 victories and the No. 3 seed. They'll face the No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers (Game 1 is 8:30 p.m. CT Saturday at American Airlines Center), although seemingly everybody wanted a piece of them.

And that's fine with Terry, whose bravado remains intact.

"A lot of teams want to play us," he said, "and they're going to get their shot, one by one."

Despite a 2-7 stretch with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined with a sprained knee -- and more pain with Nowitzki on the floor, but in recovery mode, and Caron Butler off the floor in post-surgery mode -- the Mavs still finished with fewer wins in the Western Conference than only the San Antonio Spurs and Lakers, the only West teams other than Dallas to appear in an NBA Finals since Utah did it way back in 1998.

"It was a good season," Jason Kidd said. "We went through a lot as a team, but the big thing is, a veteran ballclub, we never let go of the rope. We just kept playing with Dirk out or Caron out, we just kept playing. So we can draw on that when we're down that we don't have to just quit. We can find a way to win. Defensively, I think we all believe that's what it takes."

They have no choice. Unlike the Spurs and Lakers, the Mavs haven't won multiple championships in that time. Matter of fact, there've been zero parades through downtown Dallas, only annual gut-wrench, and too often well too early. The Mavs had never mastered the defensive chops to win a title and fell prey to tougher, scrappier, more determined clubs, records be damned.

And so the Matt Barneses of the world tweet how to easily muscle the Mavs out of a series and Karl goes where almost no coach ever has, actually picking his preferred playoff opponent as if he were selecting neckties and liked the blue one, 55/45, over the yellow one.

Mavs starting center Tyson Chandler knocked the Mavs out of the first round when he was with the New Orleans Hornets three Aprils ago. Wednesday night he sent old buddy Chris Paul crashing to the hardwood with a hard screen as part of a physically dominating second half, a side the Mavs haven't revealed much of late.

The Dallas bench was chirping over Paul's apparent motor mouth during the first half, allegedly playing up the tried-and-true soft theme as the undermanned Hornets were taking it to the Mavs in the first half, building as much as an eight-point bulge.

So much is riding on Chandler stepping forward as the playoff enforcer the Mavs have never had. After Dallas recovered from another sluggish first half Wednesday before clamping down defensively, he told the rest of the league to go right on ahead thinking of the Mavs as playoff losers.

"Everybody's saying, 'Same old Mavs, same old Mavs,' and that's a good thing," Chandler said. "I hope whoever we're facing is going to think we're the same old Mavs, too; a team that's going to come and get knocked out early, because that will give us an advantage. Sometimes it's good to be the hunter instead of the hunted."

As impressive and as needed as the second half was, it can't erase the head-scratching play of the past four weeks or even two nights earlier when only a silly Chuck Hayes foul with 1.5 seconds to go kept the Mavs from losing in Houston.

So why should anyone believe this Mavs team is different from the others?

"I feel like we're going to have a different focus about us," Chandler said. "We got to really, really, really understand and comprehend what's at stake and what we have here. We've got J-Kidd in the latter part of his career and a lot of pieces may not be here next year. While we are all here, we've got to take advantage of it."

They will take a new starting lineup into Game 1. The Roddy Beaubois experiment is over. DeShawn Stevenson, who played so well for the team earlier in the season, is back as the starting shooting guard. Beaubois, who sprained his left foot in Wednesday's game, will come off the bench if healthy.

Plenty will have to go right for the Mavs to reach their goal. It's time to put up or shut up.

"It's wide open, more than anybody thinks," Terry said. "Everybody says pretty much the Lakers are the team to beat, but I know of seven other teams in the Western Conference that feel like they're the team to beat, and we're one of them. We know what our formula for success is and we're locked in."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.