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Western Conference first-round preview: Mavericks vs. Trail Blazers

This might be the most intriguing series of the first round. The Blazers won their last two regular-season meetings with Dallas, and their new versatility gives them the ability to match up with the Mavericks in several different ways. Portland's big guards, especially Brandon Roy, can thrive against the Mavs' smaller and, in Jason Kidd's case, slower backcourt, and the Blazers can throw three guys at Dirk Nowitzki -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace.

The Mavs just snapped a nine-game losing streak to Western Conference playoff teams, and they never quite regained the form that saw them start 43-9 in games Dirk Nowitzki played. Tyson Chandler has missed a few games (including the last Portland game) with minor ailments, the slumping Roddy Beaubois has been pulled from the starting lineup and the Corey Brewer/Peja Stojakovic small forward combination never really worked.

But still: This Dallas team did start 43-9 with Nowitzki healthy, and it played especially well against elite teams during that span. Only three teams rank in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession: Dallas, the Lakers and Miami. That says something.

KEY MATCHUP

Dallas' bigs vs. Portland's bigs. Aldridge, with his length and quickness, might be the best matchup against Nowitzki. But sticking Aldridge there full time saps his energy (which he'll need to carry Portland's offense) and risks foul trouble. The Blazers have tried Wallace on Nowitzki, but Nate McMillan has since said he does not like the size disadvantage there. Still: Both these guys will take turns on Nowitzki, and when they do, Portland will send a variety of double teams to confuse the Dallas All-Star.

Some of the Dirk burden will also fall to Camby. Is the 37-year-old up to it?

On the other end, Aldridge torched the Mavs in four games this season, averaging 28 points on 52 percent shooting. Expect Chandler to start on him, though Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood will also see time on Aldridge. A potential decisive factor: whether Aldridge can get Chandler in foul trouble.

X-FACTORS

Mavericks: Zone defense. Dallas built its early-season defense around a zone so good -- and used so often -- that some quickly labeled it the best zone in NBA history. The Mavs have not used it as much as the season has gone on, but it could be an important weapon here, especially because Portland is one of the league's shakiest three-point shooting teams.

Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy. Roy had perhaps his most memorable game of the season against Dallas on March 15, when he scored 21 points and made several clutch hoops in an exciting Portland win. The Mavs' backcourt lacks an ideal defender for Roy, who can hide his creaky knees on defense against Kidd or one of Dallas' small forwards (other than Shawn Marion). If Roy is productive, look for Portland to use a bigger lineup in which he plays point guard -- a unit that has given Dallas problems. As a side note, Brewer could be a mini-X-factor for Dallas in combating Roy.

BOTTOM LINE

I've liked this Mavs team all season, and I think it's ready to play well enough to win a very tough series. Winning in six would mean clinching in Portland, but Dallas has been the league's best road team all year. Mavericks in 6.

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