I'm picking the Dallas Mavericks to win this series. Do not ask me to predict how many games it will last.
This Texas tussle could go six or seven. It could also end in five or a sweep.
The one reason to afford the San Antonio Spurs a chance in their quest to reverse the outcome of last year's five-game beatdown is Manu Ginobili.
He watched from AT&T Center and American Airlines Center benches and from the locker room as his team stumbled to its first opening-round exit since 2000.
Tim Duncan had never lost a quarterfinal in which he played. Ginobili's heart ached more than his wrecked body when the bombs-away Mavs prevailed.
Now, he has the opportunity to rewrite history for the Spurs and all seventh seeds. Dallas may boast more overall talent, but Ginobili is the best player in the series.
The Spurs spent big last summer after the Mavs' thrasing necessitated change. The results of the roster renovation (they won four fewer games overall, five fewer games on the road, and will open the playoffs without home-court for the first time in the Duncan era) may look suspect.
Yet, no one can deny the Spurs are better. A lot better.
Sans Ginobili, the team captured a sparse number of late-season victories over quality playoff opponents. A 12-point road win against the lottery-bound Oklahoma City Thunder qualified as gritty.
This time, the Spurs march into the playoffs with an impressive victims' list that includes every serious title contender and 34 double-digit victories. Only two other squads won more games by 10 or more points.
Ginobili will have a big say in whether Dallas belongs in that group.
His mere presence on the court changes the complexion of the matchup. He averaged better than 21 points after the All-Star break and feasted on his established diet of pick-and-rolls, stepback triples, and twisting layups.
He helped Richard Jefferson find his way in the Spurs system. He helped Dejuan Blair become an X-Factor on the offensive end.
If Duncan plays like he has in most playoff openers, if George Hill suits up, and if Tony Parker can regain his touch around the rim, a victory over the Mavs' would not fall in the upset category.
Hasn't this franchise secured four titles under Gregg Popovich's sideline watch? Some of that glorious past still matters.
The Mavericks, however, erased the Spurs' "big brother" stranglehold in 2006. That seven-game classic may still haunt San Antonio.
That and what transpired last year should make the Mavs' favorites. Rick Carlisle also bolstered his roster.
Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, and Brendan Haywood will make a difference.
Josh Howard's absence, however, offers another reason for hope. None of the Mavs' additions have vendettas against the Spurs for passing on them in the draft.
He used his rage to make San Antonio suffer. Howard and Jerry Stackhouse seemed to harbor genuine hatred of the Spurs, whereas the others played along to keep the rivalry fire burning.
Maybe the "h" word still applies to Jason Terry.
Make no mistake. The battle-tested Spurs are underdogs.
Ginobili leads the way with his proverbial megaphone now, and San Antonio has the bark and bite to make "big brother" matter again.
The Mavs will win, but maybe they won't.
Dirk Nowitzki averaged 28 points against the Spurs this year, but he also shot in the low 40s for most of those four games. Antonio McDyess and Jefferson can do a better job with more size than Bruce Bowen ever did.
Terry has also misfired more than usual with Keith Bogans, Hill, and Jefferson harrassing him.
J.J. Barea should not run as wild as he did in Game One. The Spurs' back-up plan, Hill, advanced his game over the summer.
The Mavs also top the Spurs' in the age category by more than two years. Dallas' once overhyped youth advantage has disappeared.
Two of the oldest teams in the league will spar on even ground in that department.
The Spurs will also open in Dallas, a hurdle that should have them more focused than in any first-round series since Duncan entered the league in 1997.
Home-court advantage did not matter in 2006 or 2009.
I'm picking the Mavericks but giving the Spurs a chance because Ginobili still does.