PORTLAND, Ore. – For the Mavericks, one epic meltdown at the Rose Garden was enough.

Having clearly learned from their fourth-quarter flop five days earlier, they stayed the course Thursday night, figuring out how to defend the Portland Trail Blazers late in a close game and putting a message-sending end to a first-round playoff series that was rugged from start to finish.

The message: the Los Angeles Lakers should expect a battle-toughened, strong-willed bunch of Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals.

They put together their best game of the series to close out the Portland Trail Blazers with a 103-96 victory that finished off a 4-2 series win, just the second time in five years the Mavericks have escaped the first round.

It was a gratifying win, and the first time in the series that the road team broke through for a victory. The Mavericks fell behind early by a dozen points, went ahead by 17, then held on for dear life.

In the end, it was their defense that stopped the Blazers twice on key possessions when the outcome was still in doubt in the final moments.

“Everybody stuck together,’’ said coach Rick Carlisle. “As the game went on, we gained momentum. That was important. They made a run in the fourth. We’ve had teams make runs at us all year.

“But there wasn’t going to be a miracle tonight.’’

The Mavericks never lost the lead late, even though they had twice as many turnovers (six) in the fourth quarter as they had in the first three quarters combined (three).

They were able to salt away the series and ensure that they will be on equal footing with the Lakers, who also finished their first-round series Thursday, pushing New Orleans to the sideline also in six games.

“Not a lot of people picked us to win this series and not a lot of people are going to pick us to win the next series,’’ said Dirk Nowitzki. “It’s definitely good to get out of the first round and especially get a road win.’’

The Mavericks had lost eight consecutive road games in the playoffs over the last three postseasons. But they got past that phobia by holding LaMarcus Aldridge to 11-of-25 shooting and with a strong bench led by Jason Terry that outscored the Blazers, 35-14.

“This is what an NBA player always dreams about,’’ Terry said. “The road to the championship always goes through the champion. Here we go. We’ve got them now.’’

It was a series MVP-level night for Nowitzki, who had 33 points and 11 rebounds and hit 11-of-17 shots. He had lots of help. And the Mavericks were strong defensively at the end.

Their 75-58 lead late in the third quarter was down to 86-85 with still 5:20 to go. But Jason Kidd hit a 3-pointer and Terry followed that with a long jumper for a 91-85 advantage. Twice, Terry lost the ball over the backcourt line for turnovers in the final three minutes. But the Mavericks forced end-of-shot-clock jumpers by Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace on consecutive possessions that stalled any chance the Blazers had.

Nowitzki hit eight free throws in the final 32 seconds to clinch it.

For the Blazers, it was the sixth consecutive time they have lost in the first round of the playoffs, dating to 2001.

“We’re not known for being a defensive team,’’ Kidd said. “We were communicating down the stretch and really trying to show them different looks. Game 4 really prepared us for that. As much as we were embarrassed, in the long run, I think it was a good thing that it happened because we were in the same situation and the big thing is nobody panicked. Even just up one, we just kept playing.’’

The Mavericks’ lead wasn’t as big as in Game 4, when they lost a 23-point advantage, but it still would have been reviled as a horrible collapse had they let this one get away.

Part of the reason they were in command late was because of the way they defended Aldridge again. The Portland forward scored 24 points, but he never got on the sort of roll that made him dominant earlier in the series.

Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood deserve credit for that. They basically were told that they were going to have to defend Aldridge one-on-one so that the rest of the Mavericks could stay with the Blazers’ shooters.

The strategy worked well enough to hold Aldridge to an average of 18.5 points in the final four games of the series.

For their efforts, they now get to prepare for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But it sure beats the alternative.

Courtesy of: The Dallas Morning News