By Brad Friedman

Let's face it. Nobody could have anticipated Dallas would have this type of season: 60 wins with one All-Star and a group of role players. They nearly "stole" the No. 1 seed in the West and the Southwest Division title from the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki may very well win MVP this season when things are all said and done.

Still, while you'll hear the names of San Antonio, Detroit and Miami in the title debate, rarely does Dallas enter the conversation. For years, the Mavericks have teased us with strong regular seasons, only to disappoint in the playoffs.

In the five previous seasons in which they've averaged 56 wins, the team made it to the West Finals just once, in 2003, when they succumbed to San Antonio in six games. The following season featured a first round exit and last season saw the team fall in the second round.

Dirk would like payback on the Spurs.
Tim Heitman/NBAE/Getty Images
The knock on the Mavericks has always been that they are nothing but a high-powered offense, ill-equipped for the grind of playoff basketball. Before you attach that label on Dallas again this year, realize Avery Johnson is now running the show.

With Johnson at the helm, Dallas has shifted their focus to the other end of the floor. During the regular season, the Mavs yielded just 93.17 points per game, good for seventh in the NBA. Clubs shot just .443 from the field against them, 10th overall in the league.

"We can do it," Mavericks point guard Jason Terry told the Sporting News about a potential playoff run. "We are deep. We can score. We play defense. And we have the big guy. We're ready."

If they do make it out of the West, it's likely they will have to go through San Antonio.

The Spurs, winners of two titles in the last three seasons, have proven to be a serious thorn in the Mavericks' side in recent years. Besides the West finals victory in 2003, the Spurs have beat out Dallas for a division title five of the last six seasons, with the Mavs finishing behind San Antonio by a game or on a tiebreaker three times.

That's not to say Dallas is intimidated. The Mavericks split the season series 2-2, and in the series finale April 7, Dallas won in San Antonio for the first time in 2 1/2 years.

"We can't be satisfied with just tying up the series with this win," guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "We're going to probably see this team somewhere down the road in the playoffs."

Then and only then can they answer the question: Are the Mavs just a good regular season team, or are they a legitimate title contender?