Mavs stand toe to toe with champs

LOS ANGELES -- The Dallas Mavericks are who they thought they were. That gives them a chance to be what they want to be.

The Mavericks, long considered an NBA synonym for soft, have proved without a shadow of a doubt that they are indeed a bunch of thick-skinned, strong-minded veterans.

We skeptics have been forced to become believers after seeing this team respond to moments when previous Mavs teams would have shown their weakness.

"Oh, no, here we go again" was the vibe after the Mavs managed to let a sure victory slip away in Game 4 of the first round, blowing a 23-point lead in the Rose Garden to allow the Portland Trail Blazers to even the series. Dallas emerged from the avalanche of well-earned criticism to convincingly beat the Blazers in Game 5 and close out the series on the road a few nights later.

"Uh, oh" could have easily been the Mavs' mindset after a miserable, four-minute stretch of brain cramps contributed to the Los Angeles Lakers' 21-2 run that bridged the two halves in Game 1 and built a 16-point lead for Kobe Bryant & Co. The Mavs managed to get off the mat, clear their minds, punch the Lakers in the mouth with a run to make it a one-possession game in a matter of minutes and outplay L.A. in the clutch to pull off an upset that stunned Staples Center.

"We're mentally tougher than we have been," said Dirk Nowitzki, the face of the franchise during the Mavs' run of 11 consecutive ringless 50-win seasons. "It showed after the meltdown in Game 4 in Portland, the way we came back and basically won two big games back to back. Everybody already said we're dead."

The Mavs are very much alive and kicking Lakers butt in crunch time, at least in the series opener.

Maybe Kobe's admission that the Mavs can beat the Lakers was meant as a wake-up call to his teammates. But his concern is legitimate, which means the Mavs' title hopes must be, too.

If the Mavs can knock out the two-time defending champs, their sole goal is certainly in reach.

That, of course, is still an if as big as the state of Texas. The Mavs landed the first punch, but this will be a long heavyweight brawl. The Mavs look forward to the fight, well aware that the Lakers will connect with at least a couple of haymakers.

"We've got a lot of tough characters," said Tyson Chandler, whose summer arrival added a big man to that list. "We've got a lot of guys who have been through this, guys who have been to the Finals, guys who have been to the conference finals. I feel like we're up for the challenge."

It's a testament to this team's toughness that the Mavs have earned the right to even be considered heavyweights again. Unlike the previous four seasons, the Mavs cannot be considered underachievers, regardless of what happens in the rest of this West semifinals series.

Did you really believe the Mavs would challenge the Lakers at the beginning of this season? If so, count yourself in the distinct minority, although the Mavs were well on their way to proving those people right with their 24-5 start.

Then they lost arguably their second-best player for the remainder of the regular season and probably the entire postseason. Caron Butler's ruptured patellar tendon easily could have been a season killer, especially for a fragile team.

"I still think it's tough," Nowitzki said with a sigh. "Sometimes still I allow myself to think what would be if he would be healthy, but that's obviously the wrong way to think. We've got to get the job done without him."

The Mavs didn't use Butler's absence as an excuse. They found ways to overcome it, finishing with 57 wins despite their post-All-Star break struggles against their playoff peers.

Give the front office credit for signing Peja Stojakovic to help fill some of the scoring void, the players credit for committing to replace the grit and production of "Tuff Juice" by committee, and the coaching staff credit for recreating a rotation on the run after a perfect fit went poof.

"We've been hanging in all year," coach Rick Carlisle said.

Who knows how long the ride will last? We do know it will end with the Mavs' honor intact. Perhaps even with a parade.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.