When Tyson Chandler played for the Hornets in 2008 and they met the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, he saw an obvious mismatch.
"They totally outmanned us," Chandler said. "They had a lot more talent than we did. But when you face a team in a playoff series, you learn everything about them. We found out that if we attacked them, they would back off."
The scouting report was damning, but accurate, and the Hornets advanced in five games. When Chandler was traded to the Mavs last summer, he flashed back to that series, and made it his mission to prove the old scouting report obsolete.
"We had to erase what I thought about them and what every other team in the league thought," Chandler said.
In a statistical sense, they have been successful. The Mavericks are tied for seventh in opposing field-goal percentage, a year after they were 14th, and they are allowing more than three fewer points per game than they did last season. They overcame the loss of Caron Butler to knee surgery. They won at Boston, Miami and San Antonio. But as the playoffs near, the Mavs -- who have lost four in a row -- acknowledge that the perception of them has not changed a bit.
"People think it's the same old Mavericks, one-and-done, first-round outzki," guard Jason Terry said.
Dallas has averaged 55 wins in the past four years but famously captured just one playoff series, falling most notably to the eighth-seeded Warriors in 2007 and the seventh-seeded Spurs last season. This incarnation of Mavericks was supposed to be different, with Chandler providing an interior presence not seen in Dallas since James Donaldson. In one stretch, the Mavs won 17 of 18 games. In another, they won 18 of 19. If you take away the time Dirk Nowitzki missed in the middle of the season with a sprained knee, they have a .739 winning percentage.
But because of their recent past, every late-season slip is a cause for concern. The Mavericks embarked two weeks ago on a six-game road trip they billed as their playoff primer, a chance to steel themselves for the upcoming grind. They won the first three, and when they arrived in Los Angeles, Terry proclaimed: "We're the dark-horse, the team nobody is talking about but is still dangerous. This Mavericks team is ready."
The next night, Terry shoved Lakers guard Steve Blake in the fourth quarter, setting off a series of altercations that prompted five ejections. The Mavs did not back down, as they once did, but they did not win the fight either. They were blown out by the Lakers, then upset by the Warriors, then finally beaten by the Trail Blazers (their potential first-round opponent). They staggered home on a three-game slide and lost again Wednesday, to Denver. The Mavericks are 8-9 over their past 17 games, and desperately need to regain their balance in the next week.
With one eye on the playoffs, several contenders are slumping. The Lakers have lost three in a row. The Spurs recently lost six. The Celtics dropped three of four. And while those teams have areas of concern -- size for the Celtics, age for the Spurs, concentration for the Lakers -- the situation appears more dire in Dallas, if only because the Mavericks have seen this script play out so many times before. They pile up regular-season victories by outscoring inferior opponents, and come April, are dissected by other elite offenses. The Mavs have plenty of hallmark wins this season, but few lately. Not since mid-January have they beaten a Western Conference playoff team.
"I feel like we've got to turn it up," Chandler said. "It's taken a while for us to jell."
It may seem late to make that claim, but Dallas started out with DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard and is now going with Rodrigue Beaubois. It signed Peja Stojakovic to start at small forward but he has been supplanted by Shawn Marion. The Mavericks' depth is enviable, but their rotation remains uncertain. While many anticipate a battle royal with the Lakers in the second round, the first could be just as interesting. Whoever the Mavericks draw -- whether it's the Blazers, Hornets or Grizzlies, all separated by one game, or the Nuggets if Dallas is overtaken by the Thunder for the third seed -- will enter undaunted.
The Mavericks' ragged playoff history follows them. After they left L.A. last week, Lakers pot-stirrer Matt Barnes reminisced on Twitter about his days with the Warriors, and how they took out the Mavs in the first round. "Me & the Golden State homies laid out the blueprint on how to beat Dallas. 'PUNK 'EM' Ain't [nothing] changed."
The message was disrespectful and dismissive of all the Mavericks have accomplished this season, but they will hear more of the same in the coming weeks, when they will be everybody's favorite upset pick. Perceptions are changed in the spring, not the winter, and the Mavs will have to plug their ears until they prove once and for all that the old blueprint is no good anymore.