The playoffs are here and so are the Dallas Mavericks. Of course. With 11 straight 50-win seasons, the only question each spring seems to be where they'll be seeded.
Followed by another question: How early will they get bounced?
Since reaching the NBA finals for the first and only time in 2006, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs have won a single playoff series. They've gone out in the first round three of the last four years.
This postseason, they're seeded third in the Western Conference and will play Portland in a series that begins Saturday night in Dallas.
Sentiment is building that Dallas is as vulnerable as ever. Lakers guard Matt Barnes and Nuggets coach George Karl made comments in recent weeks suggesting the Mavericks are the team everyone wants to play.
It's not just mind games. Four straight wins to close the regular season bumped them to a mere 12-9 since early March. Until beating New Orleans on Wednesday night, they'd lost nine straight against Western playoff teams, including two against the Trail Blazers.
"I hope whoever we're facing is thinking, 'Same old Mavs, a team that's going to come in and get knocked out early,' because that'll give us an advantage," center Tyson Chandler said. "Sometimes it's good to be the hunter instead of the hunted."
Then again, Chandler is a newcomer. He doesn't know the here-we-go-again frustration in and around the organization. A few years ago, in fact, Chandler helped the Hornets add to the Mavs' misery with one of those first-round oustings.
Yet his presence is one of the reasons Dallas is hoping things will be different. He and Brendan Haywood give the Mavericks the best depth and flexibility they've ever had at center.
"(Chandler) is the most athletic big man I've ever played with," Nowitzki said. "If our two big guys play like (Dallas expects), we can beat some people in the playoffs."
So, which is it going to be -- same old, same old or something new?
Only three other teams have put together as many 50-win seasons as Dallas -- Bill Russell's Celtics, Magic Johnson's Lakers and Tim Duncan's Spurs. Each of those clubs won at least three championships along the way. San Antonio's run is still going.
The knock on the Mavericks has always been that they're soft, relying too much on jump shots. The label will linger until they prove otherwise. Heck, coach Rick Carlisle even said it a few weeks ago.
Fingers are mostly pointed at Nowitzki because everything about this club starts with him. While he should be beyond questions about his skills and toughness, his ability to lead will be questioned until he wins a title.
In the playoffs, teams have been willing to smother Nowitzki and take their chances with everyone else. Whether he gets enough help this time around might answer the question of how long Dallas lasts.
Things were looking good early, when Caron Butler was the wing man. Then he tore up a knee. Jason Terry resumed the role as the second-leading scorer with mixed results.
An emotional leader capable of hitting big shots, Terry also can be inconsistent. His emotions have gotten the best of him the last few weeks. He's started a fight, got a technical foul late in a close game, yelled at a teammate in the huddle and appeared to lose track of the score in the final seconds of a game.
The offense runs best when Jason Kidd is going strong, but how strong can his 38-year-old body be this time of year? He missed two recent games for rest and came back refreshed. He'll need to pace himself to avoid fading in the playoffs like last year.
Then there's the difficulty of the first-round matchup. The Trail Blazers are a tough draw, and their star, LaMarcus Aldridge, is from the Dallas area.
Yet there is plenty to rally the pro-Mavs faction.
Although Dallas lost both games in Portland this season, the Mavericks tied Miami for the most road wins in the NBA. They also allowed the 10th-fewest points this season, while scoring the 11th-most; only the Heat and the Lakers were that good on both ends of the court.
"We've got to play great defense -- that's the thing that's got to be our calling card in this series," Carlisle said. "If we do that, it's always going to enhance our offense."
Carlisle is expected to revert to his best defensive starting lineup, which includes DeShawn Stevenson.
Stevenson started most of the season, including the majority of the Mavericks' 18-1 spurt from late January to early March, then gave way when second-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois returned from a broken left foot. Expectations were high that Beaubois would be a big lift, but he struggled so badly that on Wednesday night he lost his starting job to Stevenson, then wound up spraining his troublesome left foot in that game.
Regardless of Beaubois' availability, Carlisle has plenty of depth and versatility on his bench, from Terry, Haywood and J.J. Barea to late-season additions Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer.
And, if Dallas can last long enough in the postseason, Butler could return.
The Mavericks' playoff road potentially includes the Lakers in the second round and the Spurs in the conference finals. Should they knock off the two-time reigning champions, they certainly would have the attitude that this could be the year, the chance for Kidd and Nowitzki to finally become champions.
Actually, that goes for all of them, as no player on the Dallas roster has won an NBA title.
"We know this is not an easy challenge, but we know it's a challenge that is a great one," Carlisle said. "So, embracing it and being energized by it is what we're going to make it about."