PORTLAND, Ore -- This time, disaster was averted. There was no collapse.
After blowing a 23-point lead to lose Game 4, the Dallas Mavericks found themselves clinging to another fourth quarter lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 6. This time, they didn't forget about All-Star Dirk Nowitzki. This time, they kept their composure, pulling out a 103-96 victory in Rose Garden, their first road playoff win in nine tries.
"We knew we gave up a game in Game 4 that we shouldn't have," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. "This one was another opportunity to make good on it. And we did."
Dallas' reward? A date with the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who also closed out their first round series against the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday night. The second round series will be the first time that the two Western Conference powers have faced off in the playoffs during the Dirk Nowitzki era.
"As an NBA player, this is what you dream about," Terry said. "The road to the championship always goes through the champions, and here we go. We've got them now."
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"It's going to be hard," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "[The Lakers] have been playing great. They had their stretch of struggles, but they're back on track. We know how good they are, but our team has a strong belief in itself."
Thursday night was the first time in six tries during the Nowitzki years that the Mavericks had won a Game 6 on the road. Carlisle and the Mavericks painted the win in Portland as the ideal preparation for facing the Lakers, who will have homecourt advantage in the second round series that begins in Staples Center on Monday night.
"Walking into this place and playing a playoff game is no fun," Carlisle said. "This is the loudest place I've ever been, and I've been in a lot of places in 27 years. For our guys to hang in and be able to win in this environment is really huge for us."
There wasn't any choking this time around, only clutch plays from all sides. Point guard Jason Kidd hit a huge fourth-quarter three-pointer. Forward Shawn Marion chipped in a late basket. Terry and Nowitzki were both huge, combining for 18 of Dallas' 28 fourth quarter points.
The team performance emboldened Carlisle, who didn't want to hear any talk about Game 4. "I choose not to look back. A big part of life is acceptance of your situation, whatever it is."
Clearly, though, this was a Dallas team that had learned from its previous failure. As in Game 4, Portland came alive in the final period, furiously trying to close a 17-point third quarter deficit. The Blazers attacked the basket desperately, shooting 14 free throw attempts in the final quarter after getting to the line just 12 in the first three quarters combined. Similarly, the Blazers' defense also forced six Mavericks turnovers in the final period after generating just three in the first three quarters. Portland's extra energy got them as close as one point, 86-85, before Dallas punched back and pulled away.
|The Lakers and Mavs will meet in the postseason for the first time during the Nowitzki era. (Getty Images)|
"Any time we made a mistake, they made us pay," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "Whenever we made a mistake or left someone open, they knocked down those shots tonight."
Terry finished with 22 points after a slow start, shooting 6-for-8 in the second half. Nowitzki had a game-high 33 points, scoring 14 fourth quarter points on an array of off-balance leaners. As he has done multiple times in the series, Nowitzki also iced the game with eight straight free throws.
"Their two go-to guys, they did what they were supposed to do for their team," Blazers forward Gerald Wallace, who led Portland with 32 points and 12 rebounds, said. "Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki, every time they needed a basket those guys found a way to get them a basket. Dirk made some tough shots, some fadeaways … Jason Terry kind of picked us apart."
Minutes after the victory, an elated and loose Mavericks locker room had already set its sights on Los Angeles.
"It's a nice win," Nowitzki said. "I don't want to overrate this win. Our goal over the past five or six years is always to win the championship … To win it all, you have to take the first step and that's winning in the first round. We feel good about that, but we know we have a long way to go. Now we'll see the defending champions so we'll have our hands full."
"Game one is huge," Terry said. "You go in there, it's a hostile environment. They're the champs. But we can't stop playing Maverick basketball."
The last time the Mavericks and Lakers faced off, Terry was at the center of some controversy, shoving Lakers guard Steve Blake to the ground during the second half of a blowout loss. The Lakers came to Blake's defense, and Matt Barnes was memorably ejected after he knocked Mavericks assistant coach Terry Stotts to the ground.
Given that recent history, the Mavericks known what's in store for them. "The team that's more physical, the team that's more aggressive, the team that can win on the other team's homecourt is going to win the series," Terry said.
Whether the Mavericks will be able to repeat their road success against a significantly more talented team than the Blazers remains uncertain. But one thing is clear: Dallas heads to Staples Center embracing its role as the underdog.
"Not a lot of people picked us to win this series," Nowitzki said. "Not a lot of people are going to pick us to win the next series."