THE SKEPTICS: The 2011 Playoffs are set to begin for the Dallas Mavericks, and after some last-second uncertainty, the Portland Trail Blazers are the opponent. As soon as the matchup was known voices clamored to label this the worst possible first-round pairing for the Mavs, and maybe they're right, but wouldn't we have heard the same echoes had Memphis or Denver found their way to the opposing bench?
Owner Mark Cuban addressed the skeptics in his pregame media session, saying sarcastically, "The national media is always right.''
Oh, and on this being a late game: "I don't care who's watching, I just care if we win."
In truth, any one of the three potential foes would've provided a difficult foe for the Mavericks, who struggled as the playoffs drew close, before one half of inspired, dominant basketball reminded us of what this team can be.
A DIFFERENT TIME: And now? This is a different time.
"This time of year, if you don't like pressure then you shouldn't be in this business,' Rick Carlisle said moments ago. "You have to make pressure your friend.''
Regardless of whether or not this is the most difficult draw available, it marks where Dallas must begin the chase of their playoff aspirations.
FIRST ON THE FLOOR: That honor goes to Jason Kidd, who got to the gym even earlier than DB.com did and was working on his shooting -- unusually early and an unusual volume.
Next up: Brian Cardinal, who like Kidd has shaved himself clean.
"I did it myself,'' The Custodian tells us with pride.
KEY POINTS: What are a few key points to watch for in this series?
Here are a few areas worth looking into ... and being discussed by the teams themselves right now:
GUARD SIZE, OR LACK THEROF With a core guard rotation of Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez and Wesley Matthews, which sport an average listed height of almost 6-5, the Blazers dwarf what Dallas had been putting on the court.
Things have changed with the insertion of DeShawn Stevenson, who stands at a physical 6-5, into the starting lineup, and Roddy B being sidelined by injury … not to mention a likely slide to the end of the rotation regardless of health.
Anytime you rely upon Terry and Barea for key rotation minutes, you're going to be small, but replacing the slender Beaubois for the strength of Stevenson is certainly a significant change. The concern is not alleviated completely, and there remains no one Portland is putting on the court that either Barea or Terry can defend consistently, at least not that we've seen yet.
In turn, if Barea and Terry can lean on the speed advantage they should hold over the man assigned to guarding them, they should be able to counter their defensive deficiencies by capitalizing on their offensive advantages. The problem with this has been that Terry has not been able to do this, averaging only 12.3 points against the Blazers while shooting 42.6 percent.
Meanwhile, for all their perceived dominance over the Mavs guards, which we're not entirely denying, the only Portland guard to have consistently hurt Dallas this season has been Matthews.
Against Dallas, Andre Miller is averaging 9 points on 41.2 percent shooting. Fernandez isn't any better at 6.8 points while hitting only 36.4 percent of his shots. Yes, Roy had his 21-point game, but never scored more than 11 in the 14 games after, and in his other two contests against Dallas he averaged only 6.5 points on 35.7 percent shooting.
The timing of these baskets may be a big part of the perception, as they seemed to find baskets when they had to have them, but the statistics don't show a group that has been as dominant over the Mavs guards as many believe.What is Rick saying about this issue, as it relates to DeShawn (apparently starting)?
"He's physical. Toughness. Defense,'' Rick said. "He brings attitude."
One more thing Rick himself is bringing: Corey Brewer to the active list. Says he won't hesitate to play him, either. (Roddy B, btw, is inactive.)
"I see him being a potential factor in the series,'' Rick says of Brewer ... which really doesn't let on very much, does it?
DIRK AND L.A.: For all the talk of LaMarcus Aldridge, who certainly deserves the recognition and praise he is receiving, there seems to be precious little in reference to Dirk Nowitzki.
True, the Mavs have had trouble slowing down Aldridge, but at least they'll have two healthy bodies to throw at him in Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, something they haven't had in their two losses to the Blazers, as Chandler missed one game and Haywood missed the other.
But, the Blazers haven't done much to slow down Nowitzki either. His points-per-game may not be as impressive as Aldridge's, 21.7 for Dirk compared to 27.8 for Aldridge. However, this isn't a symptom of better defense, note that Dirk is hitting 52.5 percent of his shots against the Blazers, only of fewer shots.
Even the most pessimistic of Mavs' fans can view this as nothing worse than a wash … and most would probably admit that they wouldn't trade Dirk for Aldridge for this series if given the chance.
Again, we're not discounting anything that Aldridge brings; only reminding of what Dirk does as well.HOME COURT: Portland is a different team at home than they are on the road. At home, they are a mighty 30-11. On the road they fall to 18-23. And, during the four-game regular season series, the home team did not lose.
Dallas cannot afford to let a home game get away from them. We can praise the league-best road record of the Mavs, tied at 28-13 with the Miami Heat, but in a playoff series where you hold home-court advantage, you place yourself on dangerous grounds if you must rely on "stealing" a road win to take the series.
We won't go as far as saying the series is over if Dallas doesn't head to Portland up 2-0, but that will not prevent us from saying they must do so. Portland is a younger team who hasn't won a playoff series since the 1999-2000 season, including losing in the first round each of the past two seasons."This is going to be intense from the start,'' Rick says.
The Mavs can't allow a revitalized confidence to usurp whatever doubts may remain by letting Portland "steal" one of the first two games.
DALLAS X-FACTORS?: Truly, this is an overused term. Each and every player in a series can end up being the "X-Factor," at either end of the spectrum. If you pick a big name, he's likely going to end up being a significant factor in the outcome of the series.
If Jason Terry can't correct his playoff failures of the past, obviously the Mavs are going to face problems (hopefully someone is letting Terry know that the playoffs are essentially just the fourth quarter of the season, and reminding him that the fourth quarter is his time), just as they will if Jason Kidd duplicates his play from the Spurs series a year ago, or if Dirk fails to perform to expectations, or Chandler can't duplicate what he's consistently provided at both ends of the floor this season.
So, we'll reach a little deeper and label Brendan Haywood the "x-factor."
If Haywood can consistently play up to his abilities while bringing a strong level of energy, hustle and attentiveness, he can have a deep impact on the series. When active, he can protect the paint as an enforcer, attack the glass with proficiency and, when combined with Tyson Chandler, allow the Mavs something they haven't had in years from the center position in the playoffs … 48 minutes of solid play.
Haywood is unlikely to be the biggest name in lights as the series plays on, but he has the ability to do the dirty work that becomes vital in the playoffs, and by doing so can become an "unsung hero" who changes the series.
One other "player" we'll label an "x-factor," even if they can no longer directly impact the series, is the Mavs front office … or Gerald Wallace.
Dallas chose not to pursue Wallace because they didn't believe he was a half-court offensive threat catered to shine in playoff basketball. Rarely do we have a chance to see a decision fall so clearly into the realm of black and white as this. If Wallace kills the Mavs in the playoffs, that position will be hard to justify. If he becomes something of an afterthought, it will be hard to say they were wrong.THE FINAL WORD: Finally, the time we've all been waiting for is here … let the playoffs begin. The 75-Member Staff is huddled on press row and, well, we're a little nervous. Anxious. Excited.
"I don't expect to see anybody's knees shaking,'' says Cuban, "on either side."
Cuban obviously wasn't sitting next to the DB.com gang on press row.