LOS ANGELES -- A huge grin broke out on the face of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was giddy that his team ruined the grand opening for the glitzy Los Angeles Lakers, as he was leaving the Staples Center visitors' locker room late Tuesday night.
"Dirk who?" Cuban kidded.
Of course, longtime face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki's recent arthroscopic knee surgery is no laughing matter. However, Dallas' 99-91 season-opening win sent a message that the Mavs aren't going to be a laughingstock while their only star recovers.
A lot of energy will be expended trying to figure out what's wrong with the Lakers, who still haven't won a game -- exhibition or one that actually matters -- since making their splashy summer moves of adding superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Heck, that was the case when the Mavs swept L.A. in the Western Conference semifinals en route to the NBA title.
That playoff series from a couple of seasons ago seems like ancient history. All-purpose forward Shawn Marion is the only member of the Mavs to play during that postseason and in this season opener.
The remodeled Mavs entered training camp with the lowest external expectations in a dozen years -- or since Dirk developed into an All-Star. And then the Mavs endured a miserable month with Nowitzki's knee problems, former All-Star center Chris Kaman's injury issues that have him wearing a suit and sitting next to Cuban on this road trip and twice-suspended guard Delonte West's dismissal from the team.
Believe it or not, based on the early results, the Mavs are still going to be a force to be reckoned with -- even while Dirk is down, which might be for as long as the season's first month, when the Mavs are fortunate to have a schedule loaded with teams coming off lottery berths.
"This is just a sign of our capabilities," coach Rick Carlisle said. "But it's like everything else: Once you do it once, you've got to do it again and again and again."
The competition in the opener certainly wasn't soft. The Mavs whipped a loaded Lakers squad widely considered the West favorites, by following Carlisle's blueprint for success -- with or without their future Hall of Famer.
"We're gonna have to be scrappy, gonna have to fight, gonna have to push that tempo," said forward/center Elton Brand, one of the Mavs' nine newcomers.
Mission accomplished, at least on opening night. The 25-year-old UCLA product gave 38-year-old Nash hell in the Hollywood debut of Dirk's buddy.
Collison scored a team-high 17 points -- more than Kidd had in any game last season -- to lead nine Mavs who scored at least seven points, including six in double figures. Collison scanned right past his line in the box score, which also included 8-of-12 shooting, 4 assists and 3 steals, to find the stat he considered most important: only 11 team turnovers.
There wasn't any drop-off when backup Rodrigue Beaubois, the 2009 first-round pick whose career has featured flashes of brilliance and frustration about injuries and inconsistency, entered the game. He had 11 points and five assists in a turnover-free 17 minutes. His performance was highlighted by a personal 5-0 run that gave the Mavs the lead in the second quarter when he followed up a 3-pointer by picking the pocket of Nash in the backcourt to lead to a breakaway layup.
"They're going to cause problems for teams with their speed and their tenacity," Carlisle said of his point guards, who held Nash to seven points and four assists with the help of the Lakers' new Princeton offense that seems like a puzzling fit for one of the premier pick-and-roll point guards of all time.
"We're fast," Cuban said, a comment never heard from his mouth in recent years. "I mean, it's just a different Mavericks team. Actually, I saw some of the old Mavs in the Lakers. We used to have trouble with really athletic teams who could run around. Now, we've got some of that."
"I told you we're a scrappy little team," Marion said. "It's going to be like that all year."
They'll have to be that kind of team to hold the fort down without Dirk, even with the league's softest schedule through Thanksgiving, based on last season's winning percentages. The Mavs embrace the challenge of winning with grit, toughness, tempo and depth until they can add their MVP to the mix.
"When people say, 'You don't have Dirk and you don't stand a chance,' you want to prove people wrong," Collison said.
Added shooting guard O.J. Mayo: "We got a locker room full of guys who can play, man. And we know that."
Now, so does the rest of the basketball world -- at least the folks who stayed up late enough to see the Mavs spoil the Lake Show's opening night.