Sunday April 17th, 2011

DALLAS -- The Mavericks have been in a playoff funk for four years. That's why they've been classified as first-round underdogs despite their home court advantage. It's also why Jason Kidd reached out to Dirk Nowitzki for help on his three-point shooting, which turned out to be so successful that it enabled Nowitzki to survive six turnovers and 13 missed field goals of his own Saturday.

The visiting Trail Blazers, who lost this playoff opener 89-81, might have been able to overcome those two performances if not for the third-party assistance of the referees, as coach Nate McMillan saw it. He couldn't understand how the Mavericks earned a 19-2 advantage in free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.

"The free throws, I just don't get that,'' said McMillan after his team had been outscored 25-9 overall at the line. "I felt like we were attacking, and guys really didn't know how to play with the fouls that were being called -- a lot of touch fouls. I thought that took the momentum and pretty much gave them control of the game in the fourth quarter.''

Was the game taken from Portland, or did the Blazers waste their opportunity to seize home court around LaMarcus Aldridge's 27 points? He kept the Blazers in it early with eight straight first-quarter points, and later helped them recover from a 47-37 halftime deficit. Andre Miller (18 points and six assists) was also terrific, but the Blazers were set back by the combined 5-for-20 performances of Gerald Wallace and Brandon Roy.

Sixth man Nicolas Batum (14 points despite going 1-of-7 from three-point range) emerged as their go-to shooter down the stretch (4-of-10 in the fourth quarter), which underlines the transitional nature of this team that was led by Roy not so long ago. Batum averaged 12.4 points this season, yet the biggest jumpers were funneled out to him in the final minutes -- which is asking a lot of a player in his third year.

The unlikeliest shooter of all was Kidd, who made 34 percent of his threes this season. He clobbered Portland by going 6-of-10 from that distance for the bulk of his 24 points in what Dallas coach Rick Carlisle called "the game of the year'' for Kidd. A week of rest not only strengthened his legs, but gave him time to improve his shooting technique based on advice from Nowitzki. "I worked on pointing my fingers [on the follow-through] and on getting the ball up,'' Kidd said. "Dirk talked to me about that, and he seems to have done pretty well with it, so I just thought I would try it.''

The improvement helped Kidd improve his aim. "You notice the good shooters like Dirk usually aren't off to the right or left,'' said Kidd. "If they're going to miss, it's going to be short or long.''

Nowitzki was missing every which way for most of this game. When Miller drove past Kidd for a left-handed layup to give Portland a 74-72 lead with 4:04 remaining, Nowitzki was 5-of-17 from the field with six turnovers. That's when Jason Terry fed him for a high-arcing three -- following-through with an exaggerated motion, as if he were demonstrating to Kidd -- that made all the difference to Nowitzki's teammates. "The most important shot of the game,'' said Carlisle. "That really energized our building and our team, and from that point we started to get some stops consistently. When we talk about the importance of persistence on our team, he was a great example of that tonight.''

Ever since they surrendered a 2-0 lead to Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavs had gone 9-17 in postseason games as they approached this opener. Their successful 57-win season was creating expectations around the country (and in Dallas, too) for another spectacular collapse, and they didn't help themselves by going 11 minutes without a field goal as they entered the latter half of the fourth period. The Blazers were outscoring them 46-18 in the paint, and where was their leader?

Here was Dirk: Taking a delayed pick-and-roll feed from Kidd to draw a hard foul for the free throws that extended the Mavs' lead to 77-74. Another pick-and-roll with Kidd left Nowitzki in a mismatch with Miller, around whom he spun to draw a foul as he was banking in a leaning 10-footer. The fans were back on their feet and for that moment it felt like the '06 postseason all over again.

Nowitzki has turned into quite the low-post threat, and on a night when he was routinely being blocked or stripped by blindsiding defenders, he was able to earn 13 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter alone. McMillan didn't like the looks of it, but Nowitzki made them all to finish with a game-best 28 points. "I thought our guys were attacking the basket, being aggressive, offensive rebounding, and there were no calls in some situations,'' said McMillan.

No lasting conclusions can be drawn from this game. The Blazers could easily generate more production from Wallace and Roy in order to reclaim Game 2 on Tuesday. Or the Mavericks could find some way to prevent Aldridge from finishing the half-dozen lobs he was able to freely dunk in Game 1, which could enable them to explode for an easy win if Nowitzki and Kidd can provide a boost once again.

"This game tonight is typical of how it's going to be,'' said Carlisle. A give-and-take struggle.

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