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Thursday, May 5, 2011
Mavericks flip the script in Hollywood

By Marc Stein

J.J. Barea
Doing his best Chris Paul impersonation in Game 2, J.J. Barea helped the Mavs take a 2-0 lead on L.A.

LOS ANGELES -- The Dallas Mavericks did not come to Hollywood expecting J.J. Barea to look like Chris Paul prancing through the paint in the fourth quarter.

Or for the cameras to catch Mavs owner Mark Cuban getting a congratulatory pat on the chest from Jack Nicholson.

Or for Magic Johnson to proclaim via Twitter that his beloved Los Angeles Lakers are pretty much Texas Toast before this series even gets to Texas.

The Mavericks never imagined that they'd be loading two road wins into the luggage hold on the team jet for Thursday's flight back home.

But they're also not nearly as surprised as you are.

"We knew we could play with these guys," Barea insisted in a Staples Center hallway late Wednesday night, allowing himself a brief moment of satisfaction after combining with Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2's decisive fourth quarter to send someone else spiraling into disarray for once.

Maybe no one knew going in just how respectively capable and vulnerable these Mavericks and Lakers were, but it's suddenly all out there. If Kobe Bryant & Co. are going to haul themselves out of a deeper hole than they've ever seen this weekend in Big D -- as Kobe defiantly vowed they can still do -- they'll have to resurrect themselves against a Mavs team that hasn't oozed belief, swagger and playoff-worthy D like this since the second round of the 2006 playoffs.

That's when Nowitzki uncorked the series of his life and ultimately carried the Mavericks to a signature Game 7 win in San Antonio over the mighty Spurs, who also happened to be the NBA's reigning champs. Five years and countless playoff disappointments later, Nowitzki looks even more unguardable now than he did then and is getting more support from his starless supporting cast than anyone envisioned when the Mavs landed in L.A. on Sunday afternoon.

The Mavericks have been the more physical team. The deeper team. The smarter team. The more active team, too.

The ball and the Mavs players are constantly moving, which dredges up at least one big disclaimer to consider when someone hits you with the Lakers' fatigue alibi after their three long playoff runs.

Tyson Chandler
Young and defensive-minded, Tyson Chandler has been a slam dunk of a pickup for the Mavs.

The Mavericks, folks, are also the older team.

Barea (26) and tireless Tyson Chandler (28) are the only players under 30 that Mavs coach Rick Carlisle used in Wednesday's 93-81 triumph. Yet that proved to be plenty of youth in Game 2, with L.A. clanking 18 of its 20 attempts from 3-point territory and with Bryant -- still nursing that gimpy left ankle -- living on the perimeter again. Bryant did rack up 23 points and five steals, but the Lakers' inability to stretch the floor or open things up with penetration allowed Dallas' Chandler-led defense to control what Nowitzki termed a "tight paint," enabling Dallas to hold the opposition under 90 points for the fifth time in eight playoff games.

Barea and Nowitzki, meanwhile, simply shredded the Lakers with their two-man game in the fourth quarter. Dirk's mere presence on the floor and the corresponding attention he attracts opened up the lane for the 6-foot spark plug, who looked as though he was zooming past L.A.'s defenders at CP3 speeds … at least until Ron Artest lashed out in frustration with a ridiculous face rake that even Phil Jackson promptly acknowledged will almost certainly get Artest suspended for Friday night's Game 3.

"Our screen-and-roll coverage," Bryant conceded, "is atrocious."

Magic Johnson's exasperation was equally unmistakable in multiple tweets. The first: "I have never seen a team take it to the Lakers at home in back-to-back playoff games." And No. 2: "The Mavs have the Lakers pointing fingers at one another. It's going to be a tough climb to come back and I think their chances are slim."

The Mavs, of course, are usually the ones getting hit with the postseason panic and gloom. Yet it sounds as if they've finally stopped listening to the outside noise.

Nowitzki contends that the Game 4 collapse in the Portland series, in which Dallas infamously blew a 23-point lead in the second half, "actually helped our team" pull together when so many of us watching presumed it was the 2006 NBA Finals all over again. Helped might not be the perfect word to describe what's happening here, but maybe that really was rock bottom for Nowitzki and Cuban after the misery of the Miami series … and Golden State in 2007 … and two more first-round exits in the past three seasons.

So giddy to steal these two games, Cuban didn't want to tempt fate by daring to even broach the subject, saying: "Not getting into any of that. Just not saying a word." Yet you can make the case, with or without his input, that responding to the Portland meltdown by winning the next two games and proceeding to a series in which the two-time champs are carrying all the pressure and scrutiny has indeed liberated the Mavs from their playoff purgatory.

At last.

"We've heard all the talk about how we're a regular-season team, how the Mavericks fold mentally, all that stuff," said Mavs guard Jason Terry, one of only two holdovers (along with Nowitzki) from the 2006 team. "And we've had situations in the past where we've lived up to that. But it's not even about that. We're not trying to prove anything to you [media] guys or anyone else. We're just trying to prove to ourselves that we belong."

Besides …

The job, no matter how well they've done it so far, is only half-done.

Nowitzki doesn't deny that the Mavs are in "a great spot," but he hasn't forgotten that he and Terry were on the NBA's last team to start a seven-game series with two losses at home and win the series anyway. A year before Dallas unraveled in the Finals against the Heat, it rallied to beat Houston in seven games in 2005 after dropping the first two at the American Airlines Center.

Rest assured, then, that the 7-footer -- this week's toast of the TNT studio after all the surprises Dallas sprung on the Lakers' floor -- is en garde.

"Sometimes," Nowitzki reminds, "this league is funny."