The Mavs won a playoff series Thursday night for only the second time since reaching the 2006 NBA finals, and it wasn't easy. A colossal collapse at the end of Game 4 in Portland forced a return trip to the Rose Garden for Game 6, and Dallas almost let another big, late lead slip away. Only this time, Dirk Nowitzki found a way to stave off those pesky Trail Blazers, scoring 33 points in the 103-96 victory.
Cuban left the court Thursday night with a huge smile. He sent a tweet complimenting Portland fans for their courtesy and he declined to say anything about his team's next foe. In an email Friday, he declined to comment about anything Lakers-related.
The playful banter is sure to come. But Cuban's biggest statement about the Lakers came last summer, when the Mavericks re-signed center Brendan Haywood, then traded for another big man, the more-agile Tyson Chandler. They made it clear they were collecting all the size they could get to try matching up with Los Angeles.
Here's how the pieces fit: If Chandler and Haywood can take turns helping slow the Lakers' big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum; if Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson can help slow Kobe Bryant; and if Nowitzki can shake Artest and whatever else Jackson throws at him, then maybe Dallas can end Los Angeles' two-year reign as NBA champions.
"We have our hands full," Nowitzki said.
"We're going to have to play a perfect game to beat them," added point guard Jason Kidd. "I hope we're up for that challenge."
Dallas and Los Angeles have a long, interesting history — at least, from the Mavs' perspective. To the Lakers, Dallas is just another franchise using them as a measuring stick.
When the Mavericks first blossomed in the mid- to late-1980s, the "Showtime" era was still going strong in Los Angeles. The Lakers ousted the Mavs from their first postseason appearance in 1984 and did it again in '86. They met in the Western Conference finals in '88, and Dallas stretched the series to seven games. The Mavericks wouldn't win another playoff game until 2001.
Dallas went from March 1990 to December 2003 between road wins in Los Angeles. The Mavericks' Hollywood headaches include the time they scored only two points in an entire quarter, the night Bryant single-handedly outscored them through three quarters and when they allowed the second-biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA history, with Bryant and the Lakers erasing a 27-point deficit.
There's been plenty of drama this season, too.
It began in January, with Jackson saying that a season-ending knee injury to Caron Butler "just leaves a vacuum that's going to be very hard for them to fill." It was an innocuous remark considering Butler was Dallas' second-leading scorer and another key part of the club's anti-Lakers scheme. However, Cuban used it as an opening to taunt Jackson, targeting the coach's relationship with Lakers executive Jeanie Buss.
"I love that Jeanie Buss' boy-toy had something to say about us," Cuban said. "It's nice to know that she lets him speak in public about other teams."
Replied the 65-year-old Jackson: "I consider myself an old man. To hear that I'm a boy-toy? That's terrific." When the teams met in Dallas a few weeks later, Buss tweeted that she missed her "boy toy."
The Mavs won that meeting, the first of the season between the clubs. It also snapped a six-game losing streak and was soon followed by an 18-1 roll that sent Dallas past the Lakers in the standings and near the Spurs for the top seed in the West.
Around that time, Nowitzki insisted Los Angeles was still the team to beat. The Lakers soon proved it, beating the Mavericks in Dallas on March 12, then closing the month with a 110-82 spanking in Los Angeles. The Lakers wound up claiming the No. 2 seed and the Mavericks got No. 3, giving Los Angeles the home-court advantage in this series.
A few days before the last matchup, Cuban tried getting under Artest's skin by saying, "Anything that puts the ball in Ron Artest's hands is always a good thing. ... Of all the choices you have on that team, you want Ron Artest making the decisions in the triangle." Artest kept his cool in that game, but others didn't. Mavericks guard Jason Terry shoved Lakers guard Steve Blake while the rout was on and Los Angeles' Matt Barnes shoved Terry in retaliation. There were multiple ejections and Barnes got suspended.
"We've had some interesting games," Kidd said. "But those games don't mean anything. Both teams are 0-0, so we'll see who hits the floor first."
Dallas has the NBA's best road record over the last two years, but had dropped eight straight road playoff games until Thursday night in Portland. Ending that skid could lift a mental burden considering the Mavericks will have to win at least once on the road to win the series.
"We're a team that's the underdog, obviously," Terry said. "But it's going to be fun."
Chandler is especially excited about the series because he's from Los Angeles. He said it's "something I've been looking forward to my entire life," and he believes the Mavs can pull off the upset.
"I think we match up well," Chandler said. "Their size is always a problem but I think the way we spread the floor is also a problem for them. ... They've been a thorn in everybody's side. That's why they're the champs. If you want to beat a champ, you've got to be the best."