SAN ANTONIO -- The Dallas Mavericks, whose core consists of 30-somethings in a quest for their first ring, pride themselves on being a tough, poised team.
That had better be the case Thursday night at the AT&T Center.
If the Mavs are who they thought they were, to borrow owner Mark Cuban's clichéd series catchphrase, win-or-go-fishin' Game 6 in this first-round fight against the San Antonio Spurs presents the perfect opportunity to prove it.
It's a chance to show that the Mavs' third-quarter meltdown in Sunday's Game 4 loss was an uncharacteristic slip for this squad, not a continuation of the proud franchise's recent history of playoff flops and flameouts.
Almost to a man, the Mavs admitted that they lost their composure while racking up twice as many turnovers (eight) as field goals made in that disastrous dozen minutes when the Spurs turned an 11-point deficit into a seven-point lead they never relinquished. Cuban was an exception, noting that he could point out other factors if he wanted to pay the fine, which amounts to safe but not-so-subtle whining about the officiating.
"Everything just went haywire," Dirk Nowitzki said in excuse-free fashion. "Good calls, bad calls, good decisions, bad decisions -- we've just got to keep playing and can't lose our cool.
"That's easier said than done, obviously, in a playoff situation, but you just have to be relaxed. They're going to make runs, but we've got to keep our heads and keep playing together."
The Spurs certainly aren't likely to make it easy, especially if they respond to coach Gregg Popovich's post-Game 5 loss call-out in a similar manner as they did earlier in the series. San Antonio has a four-championship pedigree and a coach who has the best record in NBA history in potential series-clinching games (24-9).
It's worth noting, though, that the Spurs are only 2-4 when given a chance to eliminate Dirk's Mavs in the past decade (1-3 in games in which Nowitzki actually played). That includes the high-water mark in the Mavs' history: a Game 7 road win in the 2006 West semifinals series between 60-plus-win titans, when Nowitzki's 37-point, 15-rebound performance was highlighted by an overtime-forcing and-1 drive to the basket.
Despite all the unfair doubts about Dirk's mental toughness, he has consistently delivered in potential elimination games. Nowitzki has averaged 28.3 points and 12.2 rebounds while leading the Mavs to a 10-8 record in such games he has played. (He missed the finale of the Mavs' 2003 series against the Spurs because of a knee injury.)
The Mavs will need the same sort of feistiness they had in their Game 5 rout, when they dictated tempo, dominated the boards and played stifling defense.
"They just played harder and better," said Spurs star Manu Ginobili, who has struggled offensively in two games since breaking his nose. "They were sharp and played with a lot of aggressiveness, like a team that didn't want to go home. We were upset at the way we approached the game. I hope that's how we take Game 6 because we don't want to come here for a Game 7."
However, the Mavs' reputation has been tarnished by the recent playoff failures. That tends to happen to teams that flop after winning the first two games of the Finals, lose to an 8-seed the following year and have won a grand total of one playoff series (against an injury-depleted Spurs team last season) since then.
These Mavs have reason to believe that they're different. They're bigger after the All-Star break blockbuster deal that added big man Brendan Haywood and beefy wing Caron Butler. Those additions, along with the acquisitions of versatile forward Shawn Marion and pesky enforcer Eduardo Najera, made them more physical.
They also have some statistical proof of their poise: The Mavs had the league's best record in road games (27-14) and in games decided by five or fewer points (18-7). So the swagger coming from the home locker room in American Airlines Center after Game 5 wasn't without some merit.
"No question, we're coming back," Jason Terry said. "We have to. It's our mission."