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Moment of truth arrives for Nowitzki

PORTLAND, Ore. – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) shushed the NBA's loudest arena, beating back the Portland Trail Blazers and some of his own playoff demons. No first-round flameout this year. The Dallas Mavericks bent, but didn't break. Nowitzki deserved to appreciate the moment, and yet as he walked off the Rose Garden floor someone was quick to remind him what's waiting next.

"Beat L.A.!"

Beat L.A. For Nowitzki and his Mavericks, that's both battle cry and burden. No one will expect much of the Mavs in their series with the Los Angeles Lakers just like no one expected much of them against the Blazers. Nowitzki also knows that doesn't matter. If the Mavericks are ever going to erase the stain of all that postseason failure, they need to do something special.

Beating the Blazers doesn't qualify.

Beating the two-time defending champion Lakers would.

"When I first got to the Mavericks, our big goal was making the playoffs," Nowitzki said. "That goal obviously changed the last couple years. Once you've been in the playoffs for a number of years, you want to win it all."

Championship or bust. That's been the Mavericks' mantra nearly every season since they coughed up a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals. Each year, they've busted, sometimes spectacularly so. The eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors knocked them out of the first round in 2007; the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs did the same a year ago.

In truth, even the Mavericks didn't consider themselves legit title contenders in some of those years. This season was supposed to be different. Mark Cuban assembled these Mavs to challenge the Lakers. They didn't expect to lose Caron Butler(notes) along the way, but their roster was deep enough to overcome it. Had Kobe Bryant(notes) not thrown in a late 3-pointer against the Sacramento Kings on the final night of the regular season, the Mavericks would have finished with a better record than the Lakers and landed the Western Conference's No. 2 seed.

Instead, the Mavs will open their conference semifinal series Monday in L.A. It's one round earlier than they would have preferred, but the timing matters little. Today or two weeks from today, Nowitzki and the Mavericks needed the Lakers. They needed a challenge only the Lakers can provide: Go toe-to-toe with them, and the Mavs finally prove they deserve to stand among the league's elite.

"We got a chance to go against the world champs," Jason Kidd(notes) said.

Embrace the moment, Kidd seemed to be saying, and this fits well with how the Mavericks will try to frame this series. If everyone expected them to lose to the Blazers, then everyone should expect them to lose to the Lakers. Where's the pressure in that?

Dallas hasn't met the Lakers in the postseason in nearly a quarter century. Unlike the Spurs, these Mavs aren't haunted by the ghosts of Kobe's and Shaq's past. There's no bigger stage in the sport than a playoff series with the Lakers, and the Mavs will soon realize as much, if they haven't already.

Cuban should enjoy this more than any of them. He's already said he wants to work with Charlie Sheen. Does he invite him to deliver the pregame pep talk?

Buying the Dodgers could also fill an off day for the Mavs' owner. Tyson Chandler(notes), who grew up in the shadow of Los Angeles, gets to play the Lakers in front of his family and friends. And Kidd and Kobe will find themselves matched against each other at some point in the series, two great warriors testing the limits of their competitiveness once more.

Yet none of them will have as much to gain – or lose – as Nowitzki. The Lakers offer opponents the chance to right some wrongs, to redefine their legacies. Just ask Paul Pierce(notes), Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes). Play well against the Lakers, and everyone notices. Sometimes you don't even need to win to realize the benefit. After watching Chris Paul(notes) splinter the Lakers' defense in the first round, several reporters had the same question: Is it too late to recast my MVP ballot?

If the Mavericks can't compete, if they can't make this a series, it will hang on Nowitzki more than anyone, just like it always does. Every playoff loss has always been taken as a referendum on his toughness, on his ability to lead. Maybe it's because he's European. Or because he's 7-feet tall and his jump shot is so sweet. Each misstep in the postseason is met by the same pointed criticism from all those former players turned studio analysts:

If the Mavs can't win, then clearly Nowitzki lacks heart.

In a lot of ways, Nowitzki is not unlike David Robinson before Tim Duncan(notes) joined his side. Robinson waded through the same torrent of criticism each year the Spurs went out early in the playoffs. Many times, it should have been an indictment on the supporting cast around him rather than his own shortcomings.

The soft label has never really fit Nowitzki, no matter how many times someone tries to hang it on him. He plays tough. He plays clutch. This series offered more evidence. In three of the Mavs' four victories, Nowitzki scored 18, 14 and 14 points in the fourth quarters. On Thursday, the Blazers' Chris Johnson(notes) raked Nowitzki across the face, a flagrant foul that left Nowitzki sprawled on his back. After a few moments, Nowitzki picked himself up, made both free throws then promptly stuck a step-back jump shot. The next time down the floor, he drove for a reverse layup.

"Toughness doesn't always mean throwing a punch back," Chandler said. "It means getting up and going at 'em even tougher. … Dirk got up. Instead of getting in some dumb altercation, he said, 'All right, I'm going to punish you.' "

The Lakers aren't the Blazers. The Mavs can nearly match L.A.'s length, but not its strength and physicality. From Pau Gasol(notes) to Andrew Bynum(notes) to Ron Artest(notes) to Lamar Odom(notes), the Lakers can rotate a series of big bodies on Nowitzki. In their last meeting of the regular season, the Lakers bullied the Mavs until they came unhinged. By the end of the game, five players had been ejected.

"We can't lose our composure like we did the last time there," Nowitzki said.

But Nowitzki also has called these Mavs his greatest supporting cast yet. They're experienced and more tough-minded than previous teams. Nor are they lacking for confidence. Not yet, at least.

"Our team has a strong belief in itself," said the Mavs' coach, Rick Carlisle.

Beat L.A.

For Nowitzki and these Mavs, that's not just wishful thinking by a fan. That's a mandate.

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