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Picking the Blazers-Mavs winner

DALLAS - It's the sexy NBA first-round playoff pick by pundits across the country.

Portland over Dallas.

Nearly everyone is predicting that the sixth-seeded Trail Blazers will upset the third-seeded Mavericks, and they may be right. The Mavs are the team everybody seeded five through eight in the Western Conference wanted to play.

Are they forgetting Dallas won 57 games this season?

The Mavericks started the season a house afire, winning 24 of their first 29 games. Despite losing streaks of six and four games and the loss of swingman Caron Butler to an early January knee injury, the Mavs finished a saucy 57-25.

But they at times have looked old and vulnerable. They went 1-9 in their last 10 games against West playoff teams dating back to mid-January. This from a team that, after making the NBA finals in 2006, has been ousted in the first round in three of the subsequent four seasons.

The Blazers, meanwhile, are much younger and, despite winning only 48 games, played better than Dallas down the stretch. Portland has gone 9-4 against the other seven West playoff teams since mid-February, when Gerald Wallace came aboard.

LaMarcus Aldridge has had a breakout season, Wallace provides intangibles and is a major weapon at both ends, and Wesley Matthews has been a huge plus as the starting shooting guard in only his second season.

With undersized Rodrique Beaubois hobbled by a foot injury, it appears Dallas coach Rick Carlisle will start DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard. Stevenson, among the worst starters at his position in the NBA, averaged 5.3 points on .388 shooting this season. Stevenson did have one big game against Portland, going 4 for 9 on 3-point attempts while scoring 18 points in the Mavericks' 84-81 win on Jan. 4.

The Blazers believe they can exploit many of the other individual matchups against Dallas.

Tyson Chandler will guard Aldridge, who is quicker than his adversary and should be able to pop from outside, then drive to the basket. Wallace is going to be too much for the Mavericks' Shawn Marion, and at 38, Jason Kidd can't shoot (.361) and can't defend as he used to.

Portland will try to pound the middle with Aldridge and Wallace and rack up some points in the paint. The Blazers will also try to post up smallish guards Beaubois, Jason Terry and Jose Barea with Matthews, Brandon Roy and Andre Miller.

Marcus Camby seems healthy and ready to be a major factor as a rebounder and shot-blocker. The veteran leadership and poise of Miller, 35, is another plus for the Blazers. He is a better player than Kidd at this point in their careers.

Still, the Mavericks have a lot going for them in this series.

Dirk Nowitzki has been one of the game's greats for a decade, and at 32, he's still a load. The Blazers have plenty of defenders to throw at him - Aldridge, Wallace, Marcus Camby, Nicolas Batum - but the 7-foot German always seems to find a way to score.

Terry is a dagger-bearer, a closer who loves to have the ball in his hands at crunch time. Chandler is tough and tough-minded, and he'll be a presence in the series.

Dallas has a major advantage with its bench, the deepest in the NBA. Terry, Barea, Brendan Haywood, Beaubois, Corey Brewer and Peja Stojakovic will all get their chances to contribute. Portland coach Nate McMillan, meanwhile, will have an eight-man rotation that includes only Batum, Roy and Rudy Fernandez off the bench.

What a boon it would be for the Blazers if Roy and/or Fernandez were to find a shooting rhythm. I kind of think the Blazers need at least two of the three reserves to be productive each night to win.

A couple of stats I haven't seen elsewhere that might play a factor:

• Portland's .467 opponent's field-goal percentage is 15th among the 16 playoff teams. Only the free-wheeling New York Knicks (.472) were worse. If the postseason is all about defense, that's not a good sign for the local quintet.

• Portland's 10.1 fastbreak points per game ranked next-to-last in the NBA. The Blazers scored 826 fastbreak points, two more than Milwaukee.

Remember what a potent transition game did for the Blazers in their April 8 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, when they outscored the defending champs 20-0 in fastbreak points through 2 1/2 quarters? Easy baskets can't hurt, but the Blazers traditionally don't get a lot of them.

Homecourt advantage could be huge in this series. Portland was 30-11 at home but only 18-23 away from the Rose Garden. Dallas and Miami were the league's best road teams at 28-13, and the Mavericks were 27-12 at American Airlines Center.

I expect Portland to win one of the first two games - maybe the opener. Dallas will regain the homecourt by winning one of the next two at the Rose Garden.

Game 5 will be colossal. Coaching adjustments will be critical. McMillan has done a better job at that this season. Carlisle, meanwhile, is one of the brightest minds in the game and has the league's strongest coaching staff, led by ex-NBA head coaches Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey.

The teams will split Games 5 and 6, setting up a Game-7 showdown on April 30 in Dallas.

The Blazers have a fighting chance, but the Mavericks have the homecourt. In the end, it will matter.

THE PICK - Dallas in seven games.