DALLAS -- A year ago, folks would have cackled at comparisons of the supposedly soft Dallas Mavericks and the old Detroit Bad Boys teams.
OK, maybe you think it's still a stretch. The defending NBA champions are still a title shy of pulling even with those Pistons and don't possess any elbows nearly as intimidating or oft-used as the ones attached to ex-Detroit enforcers Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer.
But these Mavs, like those Pistons, are a ridiculously deep, veteran-loaded, one-superstar squad that might just be primarily responsible for the delaying of a dynasty. Yes, Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs could be to Kevin Durant's Thunder what Isiah Thomas' Pistons were to Michael Jordan's Bulls.
If you are Durant's age and were in diapers during the Bad Boys' heyday, perhaps you need a quick history lesson. It took Jordan six seasons to win his first ring, as his Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs the previous three seasons by the Pistons, the last two coming in the Eastern Conference finals.
The loyal fans in Loud City might think that comparing this budding rivalry to the 1987-90 Detroit-Chicago scene is premature, but there's no doubt the Mavs believe they have some major mental mojo over their neighbors from north of the Red River.
The Mavs provided strong proof with Dallas' surprisingly quick five-game dismissal of the Thunder in last season's Western Conference finals. And certainly nothing that has happened this season has changed the Mavs' minds.
The Mavs were coming off horrifying, miserable performances in a couple of lopsided losses to open the season when they first saw the Thunder this season. The Mavs left Oklahoma City with an 0-3 record, but only because baby-faced five-year veteran Durant hit an amazing 28-footer at the buzzer. Days later, the Mavs dominated the Thunder in Dallas.
No matter what the West standings say as the first-place Thunder arrive in Dallas for a Wednesday night showdown on ESPN, the Mavs believe they're the better team.
"It's a big brother-little brother scenario," Dallas sixth man Jason Terry said the day after the Mavs' 100-87 win over the Thunder on Jan. 2. "It is what it is. They're good. They're up and coming, and they're dangerous."
The Mavs, however, have no fear of the Thunder.
Nowitzki said as much recently. He wasn't talking trash, just telling the truth.
"I haven't seen one team in the West that I'm scared of," Nowitzki said last week. "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."
The Mavs played the Thunder especially well when it mattered most: with the conference title at stake.
Only one problem: The Mavs responded with a 17-2 run in the final five minutes of regulation to send the game into overtime and sealed the win when old man Jason Kidd hit the real dagger 3. The Mavs slammed the door on the series by rallying from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 5.
The ends of those games appeared to be almost like the cruel kid who would let little brother build a lead in backyard one-on-one games only to crush his hopes at the end.
Maybe the Thunder will benefit from that learning experience this spring. Maybe the savvy ol' Mavs will teach the youngsters another painful lesson or two.
Oklahoma City, with Durant and superstar sidekick Russell Westbrook complemented by developing studs such as James Harden and Serge Ibaka, is dangerous enough to be considered a potential dynasty. The Los Angeles Clippers -- and maybe even a soon-to-be-remodeled Mavs roster -- might have something to say about that in future West finals, much less the Miami Heat once the Thunder get to the game's biggest stage. It's hard to believe, however, that Durant & Co. don't have multiple championships coming.
But the Mavs, to borrow the official slogan from their championship run, believe their time is now. Little brother is going to have to fight for the championship belt.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.