Mavs open season Halloween night against LeBron

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DALLAS (AP) -- This time last year, the big question surrounding the Dallas Mavericks was how they would bounce back after choking away a 2-0 lead in the NBA finals.

Their response was impressive: Three double-digit winning streaks, a first in league history. Sixty-seven wins, fifth-best in league history. Dirk Nowitzki putting up the numbers and leadership that would make him the team's first MVP winner.

Then, poof! The Mavs threw it all away again, finding an even more humiliating way to lose -- in the first round to a Golden State team that needed a huge push just to scrape its way into the playoffs. By many measures, it ranks as one of the most colossal upsets in all pro sports, making Nowitzki's honor feel a bit hollow and leaving them with a long summer to stew over their twin failures.

Now what?

How does a team overcome such demoralizing oustings in consecutive postseasons?

And how do they tolerate the 82-game precursor known as the regular season before they can get back to their proving ground?

The answers will come not from their billionaire owner or their German superstar, but in the Cajun twang of their coach, Avery Johnson, aka "The Little General."

For starters, he's already gotten everyone to believe the Warriors series was just something that happened.

Players are almost unanimous in their dismissal of it as being trapped in a perfect storm -- a streaking team against one that had been cruising into the playoffs, a bad matchup on top of that and whatever inside knowledge former coach Don Nelson shared with the Warriors. Jerry Stackhouse went so far as to say the Mavs were lucky to have stretched the series to six games.

To Johnson, the disheartening part wasn't losing that series, it was failing to get back to the finals.

"I wouldn't have been any happier had we won the first round and lost to Utah," Johnson said, referring to what the Warriors did in the second round.

Nowitzki believes the best approach is to "keep it fresh in your mind, but try to focus on the future."

"You don't want to harp on what you've done wrong, you've got to find ways to move on," he said. "But, still, the frustration -- I won't forget."

Neither have league GMs.

In their annual survey, only 15 percent picked the Mavs to win it all. That's a lot better than the chances they gave Nowitzki to repeat as MVP.

His tally: zilch. Or, as they say in Germany, null.

Such low expectations actually are helping the Mavericks' mind-set. With the division rival Spurs once again the reigning champs and teams like the Suns, Celtics and Cavaliers drawing more attention this preseason, Nowitzki described Dallas as being in "the underdog role."

Few know how to work that better than Johnson.

Only 5-foot-11 with an unreliable jump shot, Johnson started his pro career in the USBL, then changed NBA teams six times in six years. Still, he managed to play more than 1,000 NBA games over 16 seasons. He was not only a starter on San Antonio's first title team, he hit the series-winning shot. Spurs fans adore him so much that his jersey will be retired this season, even though he now coaches their division rival.

Over two-plus years running the Mavericks, he's 143-39 and already collected a Coach of the Year award. Yet NBA success is defined by the postseason, and he's only 22-20, with losses in eight of his last 10 games.

"Some champion teams have to experience the agony of defeat to move forward," Johnson said.

In hopes of joining the list of teams that had to pay their dues before savoring a title, Mavs brass decided to keep the core of the team intact. That meant re-signing Stackhouse and giving Devin Harris a contract extension rather than asking him to prove himself during the final year of his rookie deal.

"Look, we're not perfect, but we have done some pretty cool things the last two years," president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "I don't think you just take six games (the length of the Golden State series) and throw everyone out."

Probably the only way the front office would change its stance is if the Lakers were willing to trade Kobe Bryant to a Western Conference foe. Nowitzki is untouchable, but everyone else, including All-Star swingman Josh Howard, could be packaged.

Otherwise, the Mavs are going to take another crack with the same crew, hoping experience and a training program with more of an emphasis on lifting weights will be enough to get them over the top.

"When you have a team that's right there it's about being able to handle prosperity -- winning 15 games in a row or getting to the finals -- but it's also about handling adversity," Johnson said. "When you're not playing as well -- when you have a losing streak or you're having a bad four or five games in a playoff series -- how are you going to deal with it?"

They have until April to figure it out.